Stanley Kubrick may be a household name, but his 1975 film Barry Lyndon isn’t. Not quite. That’s beginning to change, but other titles usually come to mind when we read the name Kubrick. Barry Lyndon is often described as The Most Beautiful Movie Ever Made and still serves — 33 years on — as a reminder of what a period film can achieve (but rarely ever does). It has a lot of trophies on its mantle: it innovated lighting techniques; it proved that celluloid can be used as masterfully as oils; it offers a series of cold tableaux that somehow provoke hot responses in viewers. The film generates a presence — a sensation — in the room between watcher and screen the way a wizard generates an elemental. It’s not really a sensation I can label, but it has something to do with seeing history and literature come alive in front of us, no matter how stylized in design. People have told me that the movie pins them in place if they happen to glance at any given scene while walking past a TV — it hypnotizes with its long takes and tranquil pacing and colossal beauty. Not only is Barry Lyndon arguably the greatest costume drama ever filmed in English (against which we unfairly compare every other costume drama), it’s also more and more a tonic — an antidote against the effects of the ADD movie-making currently possessing our screens.
It’s interesting that one of Kubrick’s least-watched films is itself based on an underappreciated source. Vanity Fair is such a lion that William Thackeray’s other tale about a social climber — an Irish male rather than an English female — is half-forgotten even by English profs. Barry Lyndon the novel is like Barry Lyndon the film: overshadowed by bigger, meaner titles through no fault of its own. This isn’t to take anything away from Vanity Fair, or from A Clockwork Orange, 2001, or Dr. Strangelove. It’s rather just to ask for a bit of space for the underdog struggling under the rumps of its larger brothers. Barry Lyndon the film deserves that space, and it deserves better than dismissals from folks who can’t sit through a three-hour movie or sense the vigor throttling all those quiet moments onscreen. Those who only see a still-life of props and costumes aren’t paying attention to the story, the relationships, the tragedy or the satire. They aren’t hearing what’s being said about war, class, loyalty, nation and ambition. They may not be charmed by Kubrick’s aesthetic, or appreciate the officious acting style he stamps on his performers, or simply “like” the film — all of which is fair, since these are wholly subjective — but they’re wrong if they charge the movie with being empty, and they’re speaking for themselves if they charge it with being dull. Few directors manage to bake one-fifth the richness into their works that Kubrick bakes into Barry Lyndon, and the challenge about writing about this movie is deciding on which two or three elements out of hundreds to discuss.
The film opens, segues and ends with a duel scene (the last one added by Kubrick), the era’s token image which in Barry Lyndon always results in a turn of fortune for the anti-hero. That hero is Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), the son of an Irish landowner who lost his life and estate at the business end of a pistol. Though content to muddle along as poor rural gentry, Redmond learns to love the weight of a wallet when his mother gives him her life’s savings and sends him out of country. It’s for his own good; Redmond gets involved in his own duel when he comes between his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and an Englishman named Captain John Quinn (Leonard Rossiter). Quinn wins Nora’s affections with a scrumptious jig at a country fling, and when he catches Redmond’s bullet, the latter is sent to Dublin to escape the law. He doesn’t escape the highwaymen that plagued the byways of Europe back in the day, though. Stripped of money, sword and horse, Redmond enlists in the King’s army and finds himself in the thick of the Seven Years’ War. His native scrappiness serves him well — give him a sword, a pistol or a set of fists, and he tends to come out on top. He’s not smart enough to be concerned about repercussions. This helps him survive as soldier, spy and card sharp, to win the affections of the right people, and to hack his way up the social ladder and eventually change his name to the halfway stately Barry Lyndon.
Redmond is so easily adaptable that others glom onto his plasticity and see in him what they wish or need to see. In this sense, giving O’Neal the title role was apt. His casting was as controversial as the casting of Keir Dullea in 2001 and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut — Kubrick tended to cast for type and harness one-note actors for maximum effect. O’Neal may not have mastered an Irish accent (he’s the only non-European actor on set), but he was a champion of the blank-canvas everyman in his heyday. His looks are the definition of bland and so is his acting, and it’s a surprise to see how, over the course of the film, his performance grows unexpectedly more textured, particularly when Redmond relates to his young son. As thematically fit as O’Neal’s manner is both for the story and for the character (as Kubrick interprets him), I can think of a dozen contemporaries who might have deepened the role O’Neal won. Getting past the star’s wooden aspect in the first part of the film is an onus placed on the viewer, but O’Neal’s inertness onscreen is absolutely prescribed by Kubrick and exploited by the other, savvier cast members. Redmond is, after all, far from heroic; while no character or social type escapes the criticism of Thackeray and Kubrick, Redmond’s flaws are front and center. And while they lack the color injected into some of the livelier or more corrupt figures onscreen, they’re hard to forgive, the more so because O’Neal was partly cast to tempt the viewer to forget about Redmond’s greed, cruelty and addictions, and to love him like a benign younger son.
The first half of the film is concerned with Redmond’s tour across the Continent. War, politics and history figure large in this section — they catch Redmond up like flotsam that deliberately leaps into the swirl. Redmond is easily swayed by appearances and chases appearances in turn: riding to Dublin with his father’s sword and his mother’s money-bag, he finds he likes the view from a gentleman’s saddle. Watching a recruitment demonstration, he gets a semi imagining himself in military togs. He’s the classic eighteenth-century hero, more dreamy than practical, and bent on improving his station. Chasing appearances is what drives Redmond to enlist, to go AWOL, to pose as an English officer, to spy for the Prussians, and finally to tuck himself under the wing of an Irish con-man who goes by the name of the Chevalier (Patrick Magee) and bilks artistos at the gambling table. This last position helps Redmond stage the ultimate long con: the gold-digging marriage that sets him up for life as the husband of a Countess (Marisa Berenson), which in turn transforms the environment and narrows the scope in the film’s second half.
Whether he’s shooting a battle charge or a gaming table, Kubrick shot nearly every scene (and I mean nearly every scene) the way eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century artists framed their images. Writing about the painterly composition of Barry Lyndon isn’t new, but it’s unavoidable — it’s the backbone of the film’s aesthetic and it accents the commentary. I thought I was being original when I once blathered on alt.movies.kubrick about how Barry Lyndon’s outdoor scenes looked like Corot canvases — human figures dwarfed by trees — but I’d been scooped years before. Kubrick’s mimicry of Corot, Watteau and Hogarth is the film’s most famous feature. The composition stops hearts each time a new scene opens on people framed like gallery figures by walls or trees. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott found the geometry even in the most rugged and organic of landscapes — they imposed the Neoclassical garden’s artificiality onto bare nature in order to crank up the distancing effect between viewer and subject, and (as every other commentator has noted) cast us in the role of gazer and judge. The visual beauty of Barry Lyndon defies description (which is why I iced this retrospective with pix); no one has captured period architecture as perfectly as Kubrick and Alcott have done. Their scenes are precise tableaux that are sometimes static and sometimes vivid, and seeing them rendered not with oils but with human beings is an ecstatic experience for some. Every long-shot has meaning and every cavernous room has symbolic weight. Kubrick isn’t showing off with a camera, here — he’s telling his story through visuals and cuing us subliminally. Our emotional reactions to the beauty (and events) onscreen might seem spontaneous, but they’ve been provoked by a calculated lens and a perfectly positioned Louis Quinze chair.
The composition is heightened by the film’s celebrated lighting effects, and by a soundtrack that lingers in our ears for days. The music comes courtesy of Handel, Schubert and Vivaldi (among others), ringing in somber minor keys that presage the tragedy awaiting Redmond and his clan. A portion of Handel’s “Sarabande” serves as the film’s main theme, reworked by Leonard Rosenman to a fuller, rounder cadence. It adds to the movie’s lotus effect, and as the classical score overwhelms the lighter, more comical music in the film’s early scenes (including a few reels from The Chieftains), we’re drawn into the world of parlors and debt and intrigue by the ears as well as eyes. And then there’s the movie’s quality of light — it beats off the screen and we’re lost. Kubrick rigged up a NASA-designed aperture to get by using as little artificial light as possible in his interior shots, which results in fewer shadows, warmer candlelight, and sharper definition in the dimmest corners. When browns and grays and dark blues begin to overtake the production design in the film’s latter half, that’s okay, because the dark end of the palette has never been so varied. By tapping into the color techniques of the period’s painters and engravers, Kubrick has fashioned a past more dreamlike than historical. Considering how surreal and unreal doddering older centuries seem to the living, it’s fitting that the 1700s are represented in a slightly stylized manner — Barry Lyndon’s era is both true and false at once, like our collective historical memory. Kubrick and Alcott, aware of our inability to imagine the past in anything but impressions, and always through a distancing tunnel, exploited rather than fought this tendency. However obscene the wigs and dresses were in the 1750s, 60s and 70s, they come off even more outrageous here, yet they’re always believable and controlled. Kubrick never attempts to minimize the costume in his costume drama; the aristocrats’ makeup, however accurate, has repeatedly been called grotesque, and there’s a world of commentary in the Chevalier’s syphilitic beauty-spots and Redmond’s tomato-red lipstick.
As with any picaresque, a lot happens — something the film’s stillness belies. Redmond Barry Lyndon’s life is an adventure. It cross-crosses Ireland and the Continent and involves several kinds of lifestyle. This generates a parade of characters from several countries, professions and classes, which is the key to comprehensive social satire. Everyone and everything is jabbed at by Kubrick’s (and Thackeray’s) pin: doting parents, fortune-hunters, the dissatisfied aristocracy, the voracious military. Because the tragic and satirical theaters in Barry Lyndon overlap, we’re forced to approach these people and institutions from both a sympathetic and a critical standpoint, which makes them full and relevant. This wouldn’t have been possible without Kubrick’s genius casting. Magee as the con-man remora, for instance, is barely recognizable under wig and makeup, and though he makes for an unlikely libertine, his pride and helplessness (paradoxical qualities Magee perfected over his career) win Redmond’s devotion. Murray Melvin is a quiet riot as Rev. Runt, the Countess’s sycophantic hanger-on who’s both ridiculous and appealing at the same time; he’s a caricature, and the stick up his ass is made of the rarest ivory honed circa 1761. Berenson, as the Countess, is a living sculpture who sweats aristocratic ennui through her pallor, and David Morley, as Barry’s spoiled son Bryan, manages to be a brat and a dear at the same time. Morley is featured in one of the film’s iconic images — that wrenching vertical shot of a child being thrown from a horse (is there a more visceral scene anywhere on film?) — and so it happens that a small boy nabs the attention of not just other characters but of viewers as well. As good as Leon Vitali is as Bryan’s joyless older brother, his arc and outcome are soft in comparison to the impact the younger actor makes when his horse rears. But Vitali’s performance isn’t wasted. Like O’Neal, Magee, Berenson and every other actor onscreen, he’s a walking image that embodies not just an era but an emotion, a restriction, and a massive societal flaw.
It’s easy to forget that Thackeray wrote from the nineteenth century and that Kubrick worked from the twentieth; both men’s grasp of the Georgian satiric ethos is that firm. However expert Thackeray was with irony, Kubrick’s additions reveal an equally perfect understanding of the way irony was used in the period he represents onscreen. The words he puts in the mouth of a narrator — voiced by Michael Hordern — are perfect words that communicate intense irony. If we complain about the misuse of voice-over narration in film, Barry Lyndon puts the lie to the device’s so-called weakness. Thanks to the narrator, we swim in ironic euphemism, breathe attar of Fielding, and constantly doubt the characters’ self-awareness. Better still, both Thackeray and Kubrick knew how to spin history — how to mine it for comedy and tragedy at the same time, and how to use it to turn the mirror on ourselves. Their commentary is too sharp to be unforgivable, and too damned entertaining; in Kubrick’s case, it’s also too damned lovely. We can’t look away. Barry Lyndon is a drama whose costumes are more than justified not just by Kubrick’s art with a lens but by the substance of his story. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Underappreciated Gems series, on November 11, 2008.)