Thanks to TOM Tom and MARK who are hosting a mid-decade blogathon and allowing me to contribute. I selected the bewildering Stanley Kubrick film epic, Barry Lyndon, not because it was the easiest film to watch in 1975–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Film at the Oscars–but rather Barry Lyndon has had many a movie viewer scratching their heads and wondering what to say about it. When I think of Barry Lyndon, I think of wine lovingly created from Pinot noir grapes. To appreciate the film is an acquired taste that takes time and patience. In other words, when I watched it in my teens, I was bored. I still couldn’t appreciate it in my twenties or thirties. Now, I see the beauty, feel the sophistication, and marvel at the mastery of Stanley Kubrick.
Why It is Great
If you are fond of period pieces, Kubrick showcases the European, eighteenth century class structure. For the protagonist Barry Lyndon, all that mattered was improving his station to the rank of gentleman by any means possible. It was this ambition to circulate among the gentry that propelled his actions and the plot. Barry Lyndon rises as an Irish nobody to rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. His time in the British and Prussian armies show the servitude of its soldiers. Scoundrels rob coaches and horsemen. Widows and single mothers wonder how best to feed their children. The poor are hunched over and exhausted. The rich with powdered wigs and beauty marks sit in opulent galleries bored or playing cards and gossiping. Kubrick’s subtlety for demonstrating class divisions by painting a cinematographic portrait is perfect. The costumes, their props, chandeliers, fountains, and manicured grounds are breathtaking.
The film is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Kubrick stages and frames each shot with meticulous care. The beauty of the rolling hills of Ireland and England, the manorial estates, the duels, the military formations, the positioning of periphery people from each class is orchestrated. Now add the period music which is selected to enhance a transition or the mood of the scene. The viewer is privy to a ballet of poise and symmetry. I would not be surprised to learn Wes Anderson, who employs similar staging in his films, is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick. It is why I love Wes Anderson films.
Michael Hordern. He had the warm, buttery voice of the quintessential British gentleman. He was a character actor you might remember in Where Eagles Dare (1968) or as the Admiral in Gandhi (1982). His voice represented all things having to do with the British canon. I remember him in the 80s animated series of The Wind and the Willows as the Badger and the voice of The Wise Man in The Labyrinth. In Barry Lyndon, his voice had an interesting role in the film.
The adapted screenplay neatly divides the story with the narrator telling us how to interpret events and how to feel about Barry Lyndon. This approach reduces Barry to a puppet of fate and the audience is distanced from his internal thoughts. The narration also conveys key information which feels invasive. Notice how the narrator’s relationship with Barry Lyndon changes from Act I to Act II. He introduces our protagonist like an uncle who knows too much and gives away too much. By the end of the second act, he refers to him as Barry, and the formality is gone. We have traveled along with Lyndon during his escapades and are exhausted as though we parented a juvenile delinquent and don’t know how much of the blame resides with us. The narrator mimics the stuffy verbiage of British literature from the 1800s while discussing events which occurred in the 1700s. It’s a Victorian tale in love with the Romantic period. In 1975, mainstream audiences passed it by for more modern tales like Shampoo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Act II is more interesting than Act I because of the parallel construction of Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullington. Jealousy, betrayal, and revenge spark up dramatic tension. The saintly younger son, Bryan, brings out the best in Barry Lyndon while Bullington brings out the worst. There is moral ambiguity running through the story echoed by the narrator. Do you like Barry? Does Barry’s corrupted soul bring about his demise? Is a he a pawn of fate?
For me, the weakness of the film is the arm’s-length distance the viewer has with Barry Lyndon. This distance is exemplified by the reversal of shots in the cinematography. Frequently, the shot begins as a close up and withdraws to the wide angle long shot and stays there. The upside would be to show Barry is lost in the big picture and unable to control his destiny. Clever. But the downside is that the distance keeps me disengaged. Perhaps it is the fault of Ryan O’Neill whose acting is wooden and his passive wife, Lady Lyndon, played by Marisa Berenson, is numb throughout? Maybe it’s because the film is 3 hours and 7 minutes long that has one looking for the ending before it happens? Epics are hard to watch. However, notice how the emotional peaks are connected around physical expressions varying from kissing, duels, whippings, fights, and bodily mutilations.
Stanley Kubrick’s wish to film using natural light to create a pre-electric world had him searching for lenses that were fast enough to capture the candlelit interior shots. He found his solution at NASA and was able to authenticate the natural world of the 1700s. I respect him for that. You can read more about his lenses HERE.
Do you think Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s under appreciated masterpiece?