Barry Lyndon (PG.)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1975
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leon Vitali, Murray Melvin, Leonard Rossiter, Hardy Kruger. 184 mins R/I
Kubrick's 1962 version of Nabokov's Lolita has one of the greatest film posters ever: Sue Lyons as the title character in the heart shaped sunglasses and the tagline, “How Did They Ever Make A Movie Of Lolita?” Over a decade later he adapted a lesser known work by Thackeray and an appropriate line for the poster might've been Why Did They Ever Make a Film Like Barry Lyndon? It is an exquisitely hued, entirely dispassionate, instrument of torture, designed to enrich the eye and deny pleasure. Or at least, not the traditional notions of pleasure. It's not an easy film to fall in love with, but your life will always be lacking a certain something until you have.
The intense melancholy of the film is all the more painful for having no clear motivation. Maybe the film came out of the spite and irritation Kubrick felt at not getting to make his dream project Napoleon, which fell through at the end of the 60s. You'd have thought unleashing the gleeful nihilistic fury of A Clockwork Orange in 1971 might have been enough to work that out of his system.Clearly the desire to make a period costume drama was still intense, but instead of a big tale of ambition and conquest he went for this small tale of social climbing, ambition and hubris.
Kubrick's adaptation shapes Thackeray's picaresque tale of social ambition into two moments of romantic infatuation that are then remorselessly and unrelentingly punished. In Ireland in the last half of the 18th century the teenage Redmond Barry (O'Neal) falls in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) only for her to find an advantageous match with a British Army Captain (Rossiter.) After a decade or so of escapades around Europe – soldiering, spying, gambling – he attracts the attention of Lady Lyndon (Berenson.) Her infatuation with him leads to marriage, one in which he makes her miserable.
It’s Kubrick’s biggest Oscar winner but the four it picked up were all technical awards and at the time it was viewed as a disappointment, a sterile and lifeless technical marvel. Over the years though its reputation has grown. Ten to twenty years ago you would have made yourself look very big and clever if you listed it among your favourite Kubrick films; now though it is an obvious choice. It may be that tide of opinion started to turn when Brian Eno did a short piece on a long forgotten Channel 4 arts show extolling its virtues.
Barry Lyndon is as definitive and benchmark setting in the realms of historical dramas as 2001 is in science fiction. Three decades on film makers are beginning to get a semblance of the Barry Lyndon look on a fraction of the budget and schedule, but Barry Lyndon still stands out. It looks amazing, but not in the stilted ways of most such spectacles. It seems to have been shot on location in the 18th century. The landscapes are spectacular but it is the interior scenes, often shot in natural light or by candlelight that inspire awe. The use of music from the period by Schubert, Handel and Bach is exemplary.
If you look back over Kubrick’s career I think this would be pinpointed as the film where his already notorious perfectionism flipped over into obsession. Actors were regularly forced through fifty takes for the simplest line and hours were spent trying to work out the complexities of shooting scenes in candlelight. Filming went on for a year, during which Kubrick suddenly moved the production out of Ireland and back to England.
It's an odd kind of perfectionism that tries to pass off Ryan O'Neal as a teenage Irish lad, with a wandering accent but Warner Brothers insisted on a big star. He's actually pretty good but is mostly employed as the straight man to any number of Kubrickian gargoyles. Hardy Kruger, (looking uncannily like Benny Hill,) Patrick Magee, Frank Middlemiss and Steven Berkoff all offer brief explosions of acting that make anything in Dr Strangelove seemed subdued.
They are all superb but nobody tops Leonard Rossiter. Has a movie camera ever been put to better use than being pointed at Rossiter's face for a close up reaction shot? What a miracle that man was. The obvious thing to write here is that it is a great pity that he didn't work more in the cinema in general and with Kubrick in particular but he does more in his few scenes here than most actors do in a whole career. His more subdued role in 2001 is also a standout and we have the compensation of two outstanding sitcom creations.
The excesses of its production are clear in the finished film not just in its technical wizardry but in the crankiness of its story telling. The film takes its time over the unimportant bits and rushes through the bits you'd assume were important. There's a marvellous narration by Michael Hordern that takes great satisfaction in spoiling any surprises and undermining the emotions we've just witnessed. It's taking the wind out of its own sails, and the whole film is like a police cordon keeping you at a distance from the drama.
It doesn't work though – if you connect with it (and that's a mighty big if) Barry Lyndon will floor you. It's a delicate, pristine steamroller of pain and discontent, picking up just enough bits of hope and joy, to them batter and trample them into the ground, and then reverse back and trample them again. It's the perversity of the enterprise that really impresses, and makes it moving. All that effort, all that care, to no good end.
How do you make a film like Barry Lyndon? Probably by happy accident. I can't believe this is the film Kubrick set out to make: nobody could set out to make a film like Barry Lyndon, because you would need to be beyond genius to envisage such an enterprise would connect with and profoundly move people. He may have been a perfectionist but he was a perfectionist who was in search of his perfection, shooting every possible angle, every possible take and this is what he found. I think that why the film works, why it is such a precious companion to those that love it – its nihilism and despair don't seem premeditated, they just seem to come up organically. It started out with good intentions and just went wrong - how like life.