Barry Lyndon

Notes on the best film of 1975 (click here for the rest), originally written for a decade or so ago — this is the old, original, lively, not the thing called that today.

by Robert Horton

When you get older, one of the things that amazes you is the way certain comforting Truths begin to fall away. You grow up assuming that Yankee Stadium will always stand, or that Frank Sinatra will always be alive, or that every year there will be another new novel by Elmore Leonard. And at some point you realize these things won’t always be true.

One such truth is Stanley Kubrick’s status as The Olympian Filmmaker. It is strange to look around and realize that Kubrick isn’t setting campuses or Op Ed pages abuzz anymore, unless it is for his eccentric work habits; making only two features since 1980 will do that. Kubrick-mania used to be an essential part of any 20-year-old’s coming of age, but now the mystical aura around the director — like the corona that breaks across the monolith at the beginning of 2001 — has dimmed.

barry8These melancholy thoughts fit a discussion of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which is the director’s most contemplative, meditative film. It is also the film with which Kubrick began his gradual cooling-off, at least as far as the public at large was concerned, after the sensational reception of Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange. Yet something beautiful and human shines out of Barry Lyndon, this coolest and most controlled of films.

The outline of the Thackeray source novel suits Kubrick’s mordant sensibility: A roguish 18th-century Irish lad rises in the world, only to receive his comeuppance. Somewhat surprisingly, Kubrick’s film is less humorous and mocking than Thackeray’s book; I say surprisingly because, after all, this is the director who generally treats humans as an incorrigible species of bug, eminently worthy of Strangelovian sarcasm. Sometimes Kubrick finds people interesting (in Lolita, for instance, and The Shining), sometimes not (2001). But in Barry Lyndon Kubrick actually seems moved by the rise and fall of a not-particularly-admirable man.

Kubrick tells the tale in three extremely measured hours, a duration and pace that are crucial to the film’s power. We watch young Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) escape a romantic scandal in his native country, survive military service, become a gambler, and marry into nobility. And lose everything. The drama of the narrative is locked within the director’s rigorous style: sublimely balanced compositions, that eerie stillness of the Kubrick field of action, and the unusual use of the zoom, which seems to fix characters helplessly within a landscape.

We get a feel for this approach in the first dialogue scene, a tremulously erotic encounter beteween young Redmond and his beloved cousin, the minx Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton). She challenges Redmond to find a ribbon hidden between her breasts; he, swooning with ardor, hesitantly and tenderly locates the ribbon. Light floods into the room from some impossible source, as though glowing from Nora’s bosom, or perhaps from the intensity of Redmond’s sweet infatuation; light seems to have seeped into the film stock itself. But that is not all. The soundtrack has the Chieftains playing the achingly lovely song “Mna na h Eireann,” which is alone enough to break your heart. And then there is the voice of the superb Michael Hordern, the film’s wise, indulgent, exquisitely ironical narrator, introducing us to the reather silly, somewhat empty fellow we will follow for the next three hours.

barry5The technical aspects of this picaresque film are, of course, immaculate, and some of the effects (shooting scenes entirely by candlelight, for which Kubrick essentially invented a new lens) are legendary in and of themselves. The actors are memorable, including the marvelous Leonard Rossiter, as Barry’s high-strung English rival, Patrick Magee, as an experienced gambler, the ineffably creepy Murray Melvin, as a nemesis, and the sad Marisa Berenson, as the Countess of Lyndon, who gives Barry her name when she becomes his wife. And it must be said that Barry Lyndon would not be as special as it is without the presence of Ryan O’Neal, an actor of limited resources who has his great moment here. Indeed, it can be argued — and I’ll do it — that a better actor would not capture the dear, plucky qualities of Barry, nor his touching second-rateness.

In the end, Barry does not seem ordinary after all, not after having been blessed by Kubrick’s attention, and ours. Like the narrator, who sees from the beginning the unhappy trajectory of the tale, Kubrick has the god’s-eye perspective on everything. But Barry is not the only poor fool stuck in his predestination — for the storyteller is, too. As the brilliant final title card reminds us, all of this fuss has been describing food for worms. This may be why Kubrick’s films are so joyless, so closed-up. He already knows how everything ends.

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