In 1844 William Makepeace Thackeray began serializing The Luck of Barry Lyndon, an unusual new novel that may have been a first in English literature: a story with absolutely no heroes. Redmond Barry is a naive but thuggish Irish youth, who flees to the army after shooting the man his beloved cousin is to marry. Redmond stumbles through careers as a soldier, traitorous spy, and dishonest gambler before ensnaring the heart of a young noblewoman with an elderly and ailing husband. After a convenient heart attack, Redmond marries Mrs. Lyndon, adopts her last name, and proceeds to plow through her fortune at a fast clip. Barry has appeared to reach the top before a tragic death and his sniveling step-son bring him low. At first glance, the costume drama of Barry Lyndon seems like an unusual choice for the director of Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, but Stanley Kubrick’s films generally present protagonists who are either villains, ineffectual, or both. And the stately beauty that the director brought to outer space in 2001 he brings here to 18th century Europe, using sunlight and candlelight to create painterly visions of a bygone age. (184 min.)
S. – The most outstanding feature of this film for me is its visual beauty. From the opening scene of a grand and dramatic Irish landscape hosting a duel, the view is captivating. Perhaps it is the effect of having watched so many black-and-white movies lately but the colour felt sumptuous. Whether the action was taking place outdoors or within ornately decorated rooms no detail had been overlooked. The costumes were elaborate and elegant, the sets richly furnished and even the sky seemed to bring its A-game to the drama. Fortuitously, The Astor’s Kubrick festival gave us the opportunity to view Barry Lyndon on the big screen and it was a delight to just drink in the images Kubrick so carefully created.
J. – I think it’s well more than our recent monochrome viewing habits that made Barry Lyndon‘s cinematography stand out so much in our eyes. This movie is easily one of the most beautiful pieces of film that has ever been created — perhaps the most beautiful. Certainly a lot of that is attributable to the wonderful framing and staging of the shots, Kubrick being an intense perfectionist. But I think the real power of the film’s visuals comes from Kubrick’s decision to stage the majority of shots in this film without the use of electric lighting. It’s a choice that works so well because of the 18th century setting. This is an era that never knew the incandescent lamp and therefore the decorations and fashions of the day would have been designed around the use of natural light or candlelight. Kubrick exploits that to the fullest, providing us visions that seem to come straight out of a Gainsborough or Raeburn painting. And he manages to do it in a way that feels courtly and composed, but not fanciful or unreal. The film is grounded in its art.
S. – The use of natural lighting is stunning and adds a photographic quality to many scenes, it must have been painstaking work to set everything just so in the windows where the light was right. Of course the candlelight may have been slightly more agreeable to work with, although rife with its own technical challenges. These scenes required a fixed camera shot, faces huddles close to flames and slow, deliberate movements as the trade-off for the warm candle glow. It lends an atmosphere of intimacy and richness to the scene. I particularly liked that the flames were in view, creating bright white spots hovering above the candles with the action fading into view around these brilliant halos. I am deeply impressed that Kubrick made this work.
The story itself was rather unusual. Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is not a particularly likeable fellow; head-strong, selfish and opportunistic, we are stuck with him for company as he mows his way through a couple of people’s lives seemingly oblivious of their thoughts or feelings in pursuit of his own comfort. Now I think about it, he is actually a bit of a sociopath. The one person who does really manage to get under his skin is his defiant stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), who for his many (many, many) faults is at least smart enough to recognise Barry’s Achilles’ heel. The cunning way Bullingdon publicly and irrevocably unravels Barry’s aspirations is a fantastic scene.
J. – It is a fantastic scene, but I wouldn’t say that it is in any way a credit to Bullingdon. He may have stood up against his grasping stepfather, but he does so in a way that publicly humiliates his mother and mocks and belittles his young half-brother. I’m also not convinced that he was setting up Barry to lash out as he did (I think he meant simply to humiliate and got extra lucky — if you can call getting pummeled “lucky”). Bullingdon’s really just as big a creep as Barry, but is also a prissy, entitled little weasel to boot. Which is, of course, what makes him an interesting character, and Vitali probably gives the finest performance in the film.
Despite the quality of Vitali’s performance, I have some big issues with the second half of Barry Lyndon (and I’m sure we’ll address them), but I really do love the first half of the film. I’d seen it once before many, many years ago and remembered it as being a very slow movie. Seeing it again (and maybe this has to do with watching it in a theater) I don’t feel that way at all. It certainly lingers on many of its lovely shots, but I think it moves along quite briskly and wonderfully. Kubrick’s treatment of 18th century warfare in the first half of the movie is remarkable. He really brings out the beauty in the formations and uniforms and settings, but doesn’t shy away from showing how preposterous and brutal a form of combat it was. All that marching straight into fusillades of musket fire is nuts. I also loved how fluid the armies were, with Barry doing such a poor job of deserting the British redcoats that he ends up in Prussian blue.
S. – I didn’t feel that the film dragged at all, only that it was a vehicle for Kubrick’s creative expression rather than a story that captured you on an emotional level. It was actually quite dispassionate, almost clinical, biography of a selfish man, albeit a man leading a very interesting life. Having not read Thackeray’s book I don’t know whether this impression lies in the directors interpretation or is an accurate portrayal of the novel. There were certainly some tears shed by the protagonist but I got the impression that these were either self-serving (his betrayal of Captain Potzdorf to Chevalier de Balibari) or anguish at things not going his way (the demise of Bryan). After the loss of his son, however, Barry is a changed man. His drive evaporated, resulting in the grand lifestyle he has generated around him through sheer force of will, just falling away. His behaviour during the duel with Bullingdon (another beautifully constructed scene) stands in stark contrast to the man who would win at any cost.
J. – I think you’ve described here precisely what my problem with Barry Lyndon ultimately is. This is a story of a coldly calculating man, and Kubrick is himself a director that often gets referred to as being very analytical or distanced in his approach (which I think is a fair assessment). Consequently, the director’s style and telling of the story is very appropriate for the first, say, two-thirds of the story, which revolves around social mores and the actions of a remorseless social-climber. The latter part of the story, however, is driven by emotion and loss, but the style doesn’t get as messy as the plotting. The stately, painterly style that drives the first half of the film feels at odds with the actions of the characters on screen. It still looks amazing, but that beauty now pulled me away from the performances almost as strongly as it drew me in during the first half of the film. I rather like O’Neals performance in the lead role, but I feel like the direction ultimately undercuts him in the latter stages of the movie.
That said, the dueling sequence at the end is fantastically constructed and wonderfully tense. The barn or storehouse it took place in was also one of the few very plain interior locations in the film, which I think allowed it to be one of the few scenes that really honed in on the performances and emotions of the characters. Consequently it worked fantastically well, and I love how for the first time in the film Barry does something noble, only to realize that one such action was not enough for a man of his ilk to be redeemed. (On a side note, I think Barry was genuinely upset and traumatized by his son’s death, and not simply for selfish reasons. That was pretty much the only human facet he had.)
S. – I saw Barry’s decision not to seize the opportunity fate threw his way as a demonstration of his lost passion rather than a noble act. The characteristic that defined him was gone, leaving nothing in its place. This is one of the reasons I love the earlier scene of his undoing so much. Barry was a fighter, a good one, and until then it served him very well. But what he didn’t understand was that gentlemen fight with words rather than fists. Bullingdon effectively disarmed Barry at that music recital.
I’m not sure if I was supposed to feel more sympathy for Barry Lyndon than I did through the last section of the film or if the detachment was intended. The use of a narrator to move the story forward contributed greatly to concealing the inner-life of the main players. I agree with you that to have any emotional impact I needed more insight into the central character than was provided, instead I was content to go on admiring the view as Barry Lyndon faded away.
J. – I’m not sure that the narrator concealed the inner life of the characters; if anything the narrator elucidated some of what was truly going on in the characters’ heads (for instance, the narrator lets us know that Barry’s devotion to his son was very real). Narrators are tricky business in any film; often because they are generally a crutch for filmmakers who lack the skill to convey information any other way. I don’t think that’s the case in Barry Lyndon, as the narrator is actually quite funny and unorthodox — sometimes giving away plot points well before they actually happen on screen. But the narrator is also very literary in his delivery, and this speaks to the film in many ways trying to work like a novel. And in that regard, I think the omniscient narrator does pull the audience from the emotional core of film to lay down an extra layer of detachment to the events on screen. I think with Greed we saw some of the problems with trying to make a filmed novel, and at points Barry Lyndon suffers from similar issues.
That said, Barry Lyndon really is a very good movie, but I think the Sight & Sound list might be too generous with it. It is probably the most gorgeous color film ever put to celluloid, but there are storytelling issues that the exquisite photography can’t fully overcome. I love Stanley Kubrick’s films — hell, he’s probably my favorite filmmaker of all time — but I do consider this a lesser effort of his. But even a lesser Kubrick is far better than pretty much anyone else’s best.