Tag: Marie Kean

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Ryan O’Neal is Barry Lyndon in Kubrick’s brilliantly distant epic

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Redmond Barry), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Michael Hordern (Narrator), Patrick Magee (Chevalier du Balibari), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Marie Kean (Belle Barry), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), André Morell (Lord Wendover), Anthony Sharp (Lord Hallam), Philip Stone (Graham), Arthur O’Sullivan (Captain Feeney)

Kubrick has been criticised as a director more interested in style and the technical tricks of cinema than emotion, and there is perhaps no argument for the prosecution than Barry Lyndon. It now seems to the cineaste’s choice du jour as the greatest Kubrick film (probably partly because it is less well-known). Barry Lyndon however is like an exercise in all Kubrick’s strengths and weaknesses, a film that you can admire at great length while simultaneously caring very little about anything that happens in it.

Based on a William Makepeace Thackeray (although it feels in spirit only), Barry Lyndon tells the story of Irish chancer Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in the mid eighteenth century. Fleeing Ireland after (he believes) killing an English officer in a duel, Barry goes from the British arm to the Prussian army, to card-sharping the courts of Europe to marrying into the aristocracy, as husband to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). But, however hard he tries, it’s difficult for an Irish chancer to be accepted by the British aristocracy, particularly when he suffers from the vocal hatred of his wife’s son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). 

Kubrick spent several years carrying out research for an epic biopic of Napoleon (he had Ian Holm lined up for the lead role – Holm read multiple biographies and spent months working on a script with Kubrick). The flop of Waterloo (with a deliciously hammy Rod Steiger as Napoleon) killed off the chances of that film making it to the screen. Never-the-less Kubrick now had a vast archive of research for the period – and how easy it was to shift the focus of this research back a few decades. Thackeray’s novel was his chance to put all this to use – and allow Kubrick to indulge what had become a passion for the style of the era.

Barry Lyndon won four Oscars – and all in the areas where the film deserves unqualified praise. This is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, surely a contender for one of the most strikingly gorgeous films ever made. Ken Adam’s set design utilises a superb range of locations across the UK, dressed to breath-taking effect. The costumes, completely accurate to the period, are exquisitely detailed (Milan Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderland) and lusciously mounted. Leonard Rosenman’s score is a wonderful riff on a range of masterpieces from classical music, including Handel, Bach, Schubert and Mozart.

Most strikingly Kubrick decided to film as much as possible with natural lighting only, rather than the vast array of lighting bought in for most films. This was part of Kubrick’s intention to avoid any sense of the studio to his film – everything was to be shot on location and to help immerse the viewer in the detail of the period. Shots were framed to imitate artists of the period, in particular Hogarth. Evening scenes were shot lit only by candle-light, leading to truly stunning images, simply superbly lit. John Alcott’s photograhy utilised (and I’m serious here) NASA designed cameras used for the moon landings to capture images in such low light. Visually, Barry Lyndon may be one of the most perfect films ever made. It’s wonderful – and any doubts that Kubrick is not a true master of cinema should be dismissed.

But Kubrick’s problem, as always? He’s a technocrat artist who lacks some soul. So much time and energy has been expelled on the visuals and the design – the film took almost a year to shoot – that, while you are constantly almost hypnotised by its sublime imagery, it slowly occurs to you that you couldn’t care less about most of the events that happen in it. For all the film’s great length and beauty, it’s a cold and distant film. Kubrick turns Thackeray’s rogueish comic tale – a picaresque dance – into a chillingly sterile meditation on fate, with Barry transformed from a rogue and chancer into a lifeless, passive figure to whom things happen rather than ever attempting to instigate them. 

Is this Kubrick’s idea of humanity? Perhaps it suits the director who was the great master of intricate design and traps, that he would be tempted to turn this story into one where humans are just another piece of set dressing moved around and manipulated by an unseen force (fate, or rather a director?). The distancing effect is further by super-imposing an all-knowing narrator over the events, who frequently pre-empts what will happen and stresses the powerlessness of men. (On a side note, the book is narrated by Barry as were early screenplay drafts – perhaps the idea of O’Neal’s flat voice narrating so much of the action horrified Kubrick. It’s a definite improvement to get Michael Hordern’s tones talking to us for three hours.)

Perhaps though, the failure to capture any sense of Thackeray’s satirical wit, is a sharp reveal of Kubrick’s own inability to appreciate comedy – without the guiding hand of a Peter Sellers to support him. The problem is exacerbated by Ryan O’Neal in the lead role. Kubrick was ordered to hire one of the top ten box office draws of 1972 in the lead role – alas only O’Neal and Redford were the correct age and sex, and Redford (first choice) could never see himself as an Irishman masquerading as an Englishman. So O’Neal got the job – and the film is a damning indictment of his lack of charisma, flat and dry delivery and inability to bring life and energy to the proceedings (although O’Neal has blamed the editing partly for this, as well as the extended shoot). The film helped put an end to O’Neal’s career as a star (already on the wane) – and he is the film’s greatest weakness, in a role that needed more of the impish charm of Malcolm McDowell (although the lead actor from any of Kubrick’s films would have been superior). O’Neal’s presence turns Barry into a character we care nothing for, in a story already coldly distant.

O’Neal is also not helped by Kubrick’s utilising again his great love of striking British character actors – every role is filled with a recognisable face from 1970s British film and TV, each bringing colour and vibrancy to their (often brief) scenes. From Leonard Rossiter – weasily as you’d expect – as the captain Barry thinks he kills, through Patrick Magee’s ambivalently sinister Chevalier, Marie Kean’s loving mother, Murray Melvin’s obsequious priest, Godfrey Quigley’s matey army officer there is not a weak turn elsewhere in the movie. Leon Vitali brings real depth and energy into the film late on as Barry’s son-in-law and hated rival. Even Marisa Berenson – reduced to a dozen lines at most – makes an emotional impression as a woman trapped into serving the needs of the men in her life.

All these actors however are revolving in a movie that gets stuck and overwhelmed in its own grandeur and beauty. There are many wonderful sequences – with the film bookended by two duelling sequences that explore the strange rules and conventions with this society with a vicious black humour. Kubrick’s points about the oppressive insularity of the establishment – and the amount of forgiveness it has for its own, compared to the instant judgement of the outsider – are generally well-made, but are at times so laced with the director’s own cynical views of humanity in general (an increasingly clear trait in his later work) that they carry little impact. Despite this the film is never less than strangely captivating, even if its very easy to let it drift past you rather than invest in it.

But above all, while the film is stunning and the direction of Kubrick near faultless, the film itself gets so close to a great painting that it becomes something you hang on the wall to admire, but not to invest in. Kubrick couldn’t match his genius with the sort of emotion or wit that the story needed (much as it’s vastly superior to Tom Jones, that film gets closer to the spirit of authors like Thackeray than this ever does). Instead, he creates a coldly sterile world, like a perfect experiment in form and style that totally forgets such trivial elements as character and story. For all the film is full of character and events, you’ll find you care very little about them – and that the brilliance of Kubrick is only a partial consolation for that loss.

The Dead (1987)

Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston in a marriage with a past in The Dead

Director: John Huston

Cast: Anjelica Huston (Gretta Conroy), Donal McCann (Gabriel Conroy), Cathleen Delany (Julia Morkan), Helena Carroll (Kate Morkan), Rachael Dowling (Lily), Ingrid Craigie (Mary Jane), Dan O’Herlihy (Dan Browne), Marie Kean (Mrs. Malins), Donal Donnelly (“Freddy” Malins), Sean McClory (Mr. Grace), Frank Patterson (Bartell D’Arcy), Colm Meaney (Raymond Bergin)

John Huston’s final film was a long-standing passion project, anfaithful adaptation of James Joyce’ short story from The Dubliners. Huston had only a few months to live when shooting the film – he was hooked up to an oxygen supply for the course of its film-making and confined to a wheelchair. His children Anjelica and Tony (who wrote the screenplay) helped to nurse him through this final project. The final film makes for a beautiful wistful, heartfelt and tragically toned story that’s small in scale but carries great emotional force.  It’s a beautiful adaptation.

The film is set at a Christmas house party for family and friends, a regular thrown by two spinster sisters, Julia (Catheen Delany) and Kate (Helena Carroll) Morkan. The soiree – with recitals, dancing and wonderful meal – is an annual treat, with a regular guest list of family and old friends. The Morkan’s nephew Gabriel (Donal McCann) frequently serves as unofficial master of ceremonies – this year nervously checking and rechecking his after-dinner speech. However, at this year’s dinner Gabriel’s wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) is caught-off-guard by a moving song, that brings back to her a flood of memories from her younger days of a late first love – a revelation of a past life that in their bedroom after the party, stuns Gabriel and causes him to reassess everything he thought he knew about his wife’s past and how his own life has been bereft of the sort of passion she has displayed over a memory.

The summary above essentially captures the entire story of this James Joyce tale that is short on events but deeply long on emotional meaning. Critics have sometimes said it can only be a shadow of the original – but it’s an adaptation not a replacement. Huston’s film is a gentle, unhurried, carefully presented chronicle of everyday lives and the emotional depth that’s can lie buried beneath them. The Dead is short on flash, but it has such warmth, love and respect for its characters, and vibrancy in its playing that it hardly matters that for almost an hour nothing (as such) actually happens. Instead, Huston and his actors so completely understand and communicate the warm bonds between its characters – from decades of knowing each other – and the entire party has such an air of truth to it you can genuinely just enjoy watching the characters enjoy it.

It’s full of perfectly observed moments that ring true – and all straight from Joyce. The younger men who attend the party, and duck out of a gorgeous piano recital for a quick drink, to return and lead vigorous applause at its end. The awkwardness of small talk between two people that don’t really know each other, but are too polite to turn away. The affectionate indulgence of the drunken son of an old friend (“sure, he’s not as bad as he was last year”) who is quietly not passed the port and leads a praise for Julia’s slightly-off-note singing that is so lavish it manages to be as touchingly well-meant as it is grin-inducingly embarrassing. Huston had a long-held regard for the warmth and generosity of Irish hospitality and feeling and this seeps into every pore of the film.

But the film is stuffed full of moments of simple, real-world pleasure crafted by a director who understood that the impact of the stories late emotional revelations depended on the everyday low-key presentation of the film’s first hour. And there is no end of delight be had from the Morkan sister’s tearful pleasure and pride at Gabriel’s sincere speech of gratitude at the dinner’s end (even if it is overladen with classical parables). Or in the quietly supportive way Gabriel goes about organising events for them in the house, from shepherding the tipsy Freddy to a bathroom to sober up to ending events by gently wakening Protestant Dan Browne at the party’s end from his drunken doze in the cloakroom. Around all these events is the conversation of people who have known each other for years and are comfortable to sink back into the patter of familiar themes.

All of which is then perfectly counter-pointed by Gretta’s quiet revelation of a past of passion and deeply held first love that she has never spoken of before – and causes Gabriel to certainly look anew at everything in his life. It’s a sad and delicate Proustian revelation of how the slightest nudges to our memory (in this case the soulful rendition of an old Irish song) can unlock sudden wells of feeling, making events from years ago suddenly seem as painfully recent as yesterday. 

For suddenly Gabriel moves from initial jealousy into a deep and abiding sadness at how nothing in his own life could ever have motivated such depth of feeling from himself – that frankly he has nothing in his experience to match the grief and unforced emotion his wife has displayed. It’s a very Joycian revelation in which the present and the future is readdressed in light of the past. Suddenly Gabriel must reflect that his life has been one of competent and forgetful mediocrity and that he himself will die – and that fate awaits us all, with the snow falling on us all living or dead, and that Gabriel will forever lack the emotional depth and poetry to express it.

The film’s elegiac qualities match perfectly with the end of Huston’s career – and maybe the sad regret of Gabriel is Huston judging whether he made an impact either. The film however is beautiful, recreating Ireland perfectly in California with a superb cast of Irish theatre stalwarts specially imported. Donal McCann is wonderful as Gabriel, Anjelica Huston quietly moving as his wife while the rest of the cast are faultless: from Cathleen Delany and Helena Carroll’s carefully judged spinsterish generosity to Donal Donnelly’s garrulously friendly drunkenness (perhaps motivated by the impossibility of living up to his mother’s – an imperious Marie Kean – high standards). The Dead may not capture all the depth and beauty of Joyce’s writing (what can?) but it captures more than enough to be a beautifully judged film.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)

Maggie Smith excels in stately literary drama The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Director: Jack Clayton

Cast: Maggie Smith (Judith Hearne), Bob Hoskins (James Madden), Wendy Hiller (Aunt D’Arcy), Marie Kean (Mrs Rice), Ian McNeice (Bernard Rice), Prunella Scales (Moira O’Neill), Alan Devlin (Father Quigley), Rudi Davies (Mary)

Judith Hearne (Maggie Smith) is a lonely, frustrated Irish spinster who never found her place in the world. Arriving at her new lodgings in Dublin, Judith leaves behind her a whiff of scandal and a slight air of being someone you don’t want in your home. However, while her superior manner may not fool everyone, it’s enough to spark the interest of chancer James Madden (Bob Hoskins) brother of Judith’s lodger Mrs Rice (Marie Kean) – who is not remotely fooled by Judith’s pretence at upper-class gentility. While Judith wonders if romantic love may, after all, finally be round the corner for her with Madden, Madden himself wonders if the starting investment for his next dream is in his grasp.

Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Brian Moore’s novel is a stately passion project. An adaptation that Clayton had worked for years to bring to screen, it’s a quiet and respectful picture that moves with a graceful serenity over its runtime, covering emotional territory but never quite sparking into life. Clayton’s adaptation of the book is precise and perfect in nearly every way, with the film very true to Moore’s style and his ability to capture the domestic tragedy of small-scale, disappointed lives. But it’s not quite a film that hums with inspiration.

What inspiration it has is bound up with Maggie Smith’s superb (BAFTA winning) performance in the lead role as Judith herself. This is surely some of Smith’s finest work on screen, perfectly capturing every beat of this character study. Judith Hearne is a woman who relies on her upper-class background – her airs and manners – to cover up the facts of her poverty and, even more importantly, her chronic alcoholism. Couple this with her self-loathing, her confused attitudes towards God and her (barely consciously aware) mixed feelings for her deceased aunt (Wendy Hiller in imperious form in flashbacks) and she is a woman reeking of disappointment, depression and oppression as much as she does the booze she knocks back.

Smith’s performance progresses throughout the film, from a veneer of assurance to an increasingly poignant and tough to watch collapse into starkly raw emotional disintegration. Desperate in ways she hardly understands for emotional (and physical) content for another, she’s almost touchingly over-enthusiastic when offered the olive branch of friendship of a man, and the self-loathing and loneliness that channel her collapse into brutal alcohol-driven meltdowns show Smith holding nothing back but never once heading over the top. Smith totally understands how to get the balance between quiet tragedy and emotional force, constantly balancing the two expertly. 

It’s her performance that is a triumph of small moments that build over time to carry emotional force, from her careful arrangement of a room to her confused slightly timid eagerness to please when in conversation with Madden. Smith’s superb in the role, never anything less than real her eyes little windows to the depths of sadness in her soul.

It’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up to her and that, despite the force of her performance, the film never quite manages to capture the overall impact of domestic tragedy that the film needs in order to be something more than just a gracefully filmed package around a superb central performance.

Too many other plot directions end up in cul-de-sacs or never get explored. Madden’s frustrated sexual feelings – and his eventual assault on housemaid Mary (a decent performance by Rudi Davies) are simply never explored any further. Bob Hoskins gets short-changed with a character that doesn’t really go anywhere and whose darker side is demonstrated but then never referenced again. The film gives such force to the damage of Judith’s alcoholism and depression that her struggles with the church never quite gain the force they need. This is despite some sterling work from Alan Devlin as a bullying but empty churchman, not interested in hearing about problems that can’t be solved with doggerel and dogma.

The finest subplots feature Ian McNeice is superb as the bloated wastrel son of the landlady, a spoiled, lazy former student claiming to be working on the next great Irish poem (a work he estimates will take him at least another 5 years), but largely spends his time swanning around the house causing problem and sniping arrogantly at the residents. Marie Kean is also fine as the arch landlady who sees through all deceptions, other than her son’s.

It’s a shame that the film itself – for all the excellence of Clayton’s work – doesn’t quite come together into a really coherent package. What it kind of misses is perhaps the sort of sharp, knowing observation and dry wit that Alan Bennett bought to so many similar small-scale stories of wasted lives in Talking Heads. The film is on a grander scale than those, but somehow carries both less weight and less insight than an average Bennett monologue. Smith is superb – possibly a career best – but the film itself is more something to be admired than remembered.