In the wake a trilogy of films set in the future, Stanley Kubrick turned to the 1750’s for his tenth feature film. Barry Lyndon tells the story of Redmond Barry, the man who, through some mixed fortune and good luck, would one day become the eponymous “hero” Barry Lyndon.
Kubrick adopts a structure not entirely unlike that of his earlier work 2001: A Space Odyssey, or his final film, Eyes Wide Shut to tell the tale of Redmond Barry. All three films are odysseys of sorts, with Lyndon, the “middle-odyssey” of Kubrick’s career if you will, perhaps the one most closely resembles Homer’s original tale, as our hero sets out on a theoretically simple journey (Dublin here replacing the Ithaca of Homer’s Odyssey), only to find himself waylaid and spun on diverging paths throughout the course of the tale. Upon his journey Redmond passes through several armies, passes by wealthy aristocracy and gets held up by a villain symbolically connected to Polyphemus the Cyclops (Captain Feeney may not have one eye, but he does wear spectacles; Kubrick’s wit runs through Barry Lyndon).
Arguably (and I mean, arguably) Kubrick’s most ambitious work, Barry Lyndon is a vast piece, epic in tone at almost every angle. It’s a sprawling work, made up of the largest cast the filmmaker ever assembled (discounting Spartacus, which Kubrick didn’t put together). Zoom-outs are used to gradually reveal the scale of the landscape and the number of players making up armies vast. It’s an impressive use of technique, and while the scale may not impress those used to the digital thousands of post-Gladiator Hollywood, the humanity of the situation is far more powerful than Scott’s film. With every round of fire comes genuine danger; pace plays a major part, with the players denied the digital aid of automatic reload. These are real people, and while they may not be really fighting, the sense of humanity is quite clearly at hand. The film was sadly misconstrued as being a cold and flat work upon release, in the United States at least, yet id argue that, lest the subject matter deems the film cold and disparate, as it does for a section of the film, Barry Lyndon is a work of some heart. The visceral nature of several of the sequences draws the viewer in, in a manner not dissimilar to the works surrounding it either way (A Clockwork Orange and The Shining).
On the opposite side of the fence though, and feeding in to the humour of the piece (in turn reinforcing the hearty nature of the film) there is a sense of the ridiculous in a number of the more dramatic sequences within the film (the death of Captain Grogan scene immediately springs to mind, closely followed by the films numberous dual sequences). Dead bodies litter the landscape in one breath, while overly affectionate swimmers canoodle in the next. A film of terrific wit, Barry Lyndon sees almost every dramatic moment enraptured in a comedy of sorts.
Barry Lyndon is also the film that reflects Stanley Kubrick’s love for his adopted home of Great Britain, or Europe in general. The film is a keen spin on the period drama, historically the genre most associated with the national cinema of his adopted home. Also, a great deal of the film, visually at least, is shaped by that most British of institutions; the weather.
Much has been written of the very specific visual style of the film. Each shot acts as a kind of a narrated painting. Kubrick, and his cinematographer John Alcott who was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in the film, crafted the film out of natural light, with the vast majority of internal sequences lit via candlelight. Kubrick also relied on special NASA-developed lenses to shoot the internal scenes, which is quite the twist of fate considering the temporal relationship between the events of the actual moon landings and the release date of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Contradicting the slowly structured sequences are the aforementioned moments of visceral madness, during which the camera is let loose from the fixings responsible for the beauty of the other sequences. The boxing match between Barry and a fellow soldier, complete with baying crowd, is at the very least the equal of anything in A Clockwork Orange, The Shining or the “Dawn Of Man” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The third-person commentary, courtesy of notable English theatrical actor Michael Hordern lends the film a heavily theatrical feel, although ironically narrative in the source novel was actually told from the first-person, and was a hugely significant trope of said novel, in so much that it presented the protagonist as an unreliable narrator, skewing the trajectory of the tale to his own wishes.
Ryan O’Neal leads a cast as vast as the films running time is long. His Redmond Barry recalls a number of Kubrick protagonists, and makes for an interesting counterpoint to the “hero” of his previous work, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge. O’Neal was purposefully cast due to the differences the young Hollywood star exhibited compared to the earlier actor, and he portrays the contrast in character of Redmond, that of between naive youngster and treacherous chancer, perfectly, most notably of which during the films opening dual, in which, when shorn of his smart wear Redmond, handling his pistol, is revealed for the innocuous figure that he actually is.
A wealth of character actors fill out the rest of the cast. Top of the pile is Leonard Rossiter, working with Kubrick for the second time following his turn in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rossiter’s John Quinn is one of the doubtless highlights of the film, with the British television actor an utter joy. Gay Hamilton, as the sparky love interest and Leon Vitali’s Lord Bullingdon also prove to be high points (incidentally Vitali would henceforth be known as one of Kubrick’s key collaborators, and to this day represents the directors legacy and estate).
Much of Barry Lyndon production technique was recycled from Kubrick’s abandoned Napoleon Bonaparte project, which, as the legend suggests, was a project in which the director invested a vast amount of time and resources in to researching. Having briefly toyed with the idea of an adaptation of Vanity Fair, he settled on William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a work full of the sort of period set-pieces that Kubrick could employ techniques developed on Napoleon in. Kubrick himself though always maintained that the similarity in historical setting between Barry Lyndon and the previous projects was a mere coincidence, claiming, in direct reference to Barry Lyndon that “I can’t honestly say what led me to make any of my films. The best I can do is to say I just fell in love with the stories. Going beyond that is a bit like trying to explain why you fell in love with your wife: she’s intelligent, has brown eyes, a good figure. Have you really said anything? Since I am currently going through the process of trying to decide what film to make next, I realize just how uncontrollable is the business of finding a story, and how much it depends on chance and spontaneous reaction“.
While perhaps not as broadly notable as some of the director’s other features, Barry Lyndon does have it’s champions. Martin Scorsese famously declared the film as his favourite Stanley Kubrick picture, with the influence of the film clear on his period-set dramas Age Of Innocence and Gangs Of New York. There are refrains of the immense wit of Barry Lyndon in Alex Cox’s pseudo-historical drama Walker, a film that charts the life of a figure not hugely different to Redmond Barry. Wes Anderson is also said to be a fan, with the structured nature of Kubrick’s work echoed within the younger filmmakers oeuvre (most notably in the use of a detached, separated narrator in several of his films), but the most obviously inspired contemporary film might be Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine, a film which took its visual cue from Kubrick’s film, even going as far as to predominantly light the film with candles.
A contradictory work of grandeur steeped in beautiful visuals and impressive detail, Barry Lyndon might not be Stanley Kubrick’s most accessible work, or his most popular, but it is arguably his most wholly satisfying and complete piece, encapsulating the complex nature of the challenging figure behind the work in a manner quite like no other film within his oeuvre.
Adam Batty is the editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second.
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