Stanley Kubrick | 3hr 5min
Stanley Kubrick has never been one to engage empathetically with his characters and their deep sentiments of love and pain, but it is ironically in his single most focused character study (at least on par with A Clockwork Orange) that he expresses his utmost disdain for humanity in all its self-aggrandising monuments and traditions. The ironic detachment with which he approaches Barry Lyndon is several layers removed from any genuine attempt at historical appreciation of the man himself, or the high society surrounding him. After all, this a 20th century film adapting a 19th century novel that narrates fictional events from 18th century Britain, and much of the text as written by author William Makepeace Thackeray is preserved in the form of narration, archaic and reserved in manner. It warns us of narrative developments before they occur, keeping us from identifying too strongly with any characters, and yet even this filter through which we interpret the past is rendered entirely obsolete by its own self-importance, and its desperate attempts to insert itself where it is not needed. Just as the voiceover will often speak over character dialogue, so too does Kubrick fade out its rambling into silence as Barry Lyndon approaches its intermission, condemning it to its own antiquated spot in history for matching the vapidity of its subject of interest with its own equally insipid musings.
Barry Lyndon was not a well-loved film upon its initial released. Begrudgingly respected, perhaps, but ultimately condemned for its self-conscious arrogance and emotional distance, the exact same qualities that were celebrated in previous Kubrick films. Perhaps it was the glacial pace that frustrated audiences, combined with its colossal three hour run time which was typically reserved for epic, action-packed Hollywood blockbusters like Ben-Hur. Or perhaps it was the tension between Kubrick’s astonishingly beautiful visual compositions and his scorn for the subjects of these cinematic paintings that rubbed people the wrong way.
If anything though, this grating contrast only lends itself to his wickedly dry sense of humour. Whenever Kubrick cuts to a new scene, we are often immediately struck by the sheer artistry of the frame, whether we are laying eyes upon the green, rolling hills of Ireland, shaded and textured as if gone over with a fine brush, or the interior of an exquisite manor lit entirely by candles, adorned with giant paintings stretching across walls as magnificent backdrops. The camera’s stiff, controlled movements are as equally rigid as those formations in which Kubrick blocks his cast, maintaining a stillness that turns each scene into oil paintings, much like those hanging in the characters’ chambers and galleries.
Often the only movement to be found is in a slow zoom out from a close-up, this specific aesthetic device not only keeping intact the two-dimensional, painterly quality of each image that an alternative dolly shot might destroy, but also physically expanding Barry’s world around him, revealing immaculate compositions that appear almost too perfect to be real. But then, every now again, there are small breaks in the performances – Captain John Quin’s attempt to charm a woman through a ridiculous dance, or Ryan O’Neal’s meek line delivery of “I’m not sorry”, feebly asserting Barry’s refusal to back down from courting his own cousin.
It is towards this conflict between the perfectionistic standards of British high society and the messy, flawed beings who built them that Kubrick angles his most significant cultural critique of humanity in all its inflexible customs and traditions. It isn’t that he can’t engage with Barry emotionally, but why should he when it is evident from his behaviour that he is not a figure worth taking seriously on any level? As a young man, Barry’s cocksureness and imprudence are qualities which allow him to work his way up the ranks of aristocracy, engaging in fights and duels bound by rules which attempt to boil down the savage human instinct for violence into civil demonstrations of strength and marksmanship. He joins an army of redcoats in the midst of the Seven Years’ War, and as these stoic Brits march defiantly towards the enemy’s ranks and are picked off one by one, they maintain their worthless honour even in the face of certain death. Fortunately for Barry, he will only play the part for as long as he is held accountable for it, and with no sense of loyalty to any nation, leader, or woman, he finds himself rising up this dishonest society as a con artist.
It is here where Kubrick bisects his narrative right down the middle in a show of great formal ambition. Where Part I is named “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon”, Part II is titled “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon”. His new stepson, Lord Bullingdon, is the first person we meet to call him out on being a “common opportunist”, but before we attach to him for his apparent insight, Kubrick is sure to identify him as simply another fop caught up in a pallid social hierarchy. It is a little surprising that Barry is earned a shred of our sympathy in the way he lovingly interacts with his biological son, Brian, though even this relationship gets caught up in questions of how it simply propagates his own empty legacy, and one that he nevertheless has some part in destroying through his own coddling and overindulgence. “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,” recites a priest at Brian’s funeral, though it might as well be a summation of Barry’s own life as he continues into this downward trajectory, finally ruined by his own hubris, gluttony, and cowardice.
The fight that earned him respect in the first half is mirrored here with one that reveals a degrading loss of control, and just as he once came out on top in an earlier duel, here a similar conflict marks the loss of everything he had remaining – his title, his home, even one of his legs. How cruel it is as well that this duel might have actually gone his way thanks to the same random chance that lifted him up the ladder of success, had he not chosen that moment to do the first noble, fair thing in his life and let his opponent shoot again. In a final display of acerbic irreverence, Barry is sent off on his way out of high society with a zoom into his behind, and a freeze frame immortalising this image of him as his final appearance. The narration does not get the last say either though, but rather simple some plain text reading:
“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”
If we were to entertain the slightest notion that Barry or this empty culture he lives within possess any substance whatsoever, Kubrick cuts it down at the stem with this derisive jab. Like the voiceover fading into obscurity, the pomp and circumstance of these histories and cultures fade over time, unable to live up to the impossible standards of perfection set by humanity’s own foolish ambitions as displayed here in Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.