Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975)

Academy Award Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Production Design, Best Score

Director Stanley Kubrick made a career out of confounding expectations. Each work in his filmography belongs firmly within its genre, yet at the same time also acts as a blatant subversion of said genre. PATHS OF GLORY (1957) turned the romantic war epic into an ethics debate. DR STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB(1964) twisted the conventions of the sex comedy by giving it cataclysmic, end-of-the-world stakes. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) traded the cheesy pulp tropes of midcentury science fiction for a sweeping sense of ominous wonder towards creation and the unknown. After the highly-controversial, ultraviolent A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), Kubrick again surprised the film community by swinging another 180 degrees in his choice for a follow up: a stuffy costume drama based on an obscure 1844 picaresque novel written by William Makepeace Thackery and titled “The Luck Of Barry Lyndon”.

Knowing what we do of Kubrick’s career up to this point, however, the selection of Thackery’s novel isn’t surprising at all. Kubrick had spent years exhaustively researching the life and times of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for an epic film that fell apart shortly before cameras could roll, forcing him to channel his energies instead into A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. A film adaption of “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” afforded Kubrick the opportunity to repurpose the mountains of research he had amassed for NAPOLEON, given the similar time era and cultures depicted in both works. Working from his own script and with his brother-in-law Jan Harlan as an executive producer, Kubrick set about making BARRY LYNDON (1975)—an oversized production that took two years to film and endured no less than two shutdowns as its budget swelled to $11 million. Despite Kubrick’s great difficulty in getting the film made, BARRY LYNDON’s mixing of old school costume dramaturgy and the filmmaking techniques of the New Wave results in one of the best films of the 1970’s, and arguably the finest film of its illustrious director’s career.

BARRY LYNDON unfolds against the backdrop of the United Kingdom in the 18th century. Kubrick begins his three-hour story in Ireland, where a headstrong young peasant named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) loses his cousin’s romantic love for him to a British officer stationed in their town. Enraged, Barry challenges the officer to a duel and wins, necessitating his exile from the town for having killed a British officer. He hides away in Dublin for a bit before joining the British Army as an inspired means to keep a low profile. When he sours on the hardscrabble military life and tries to desert, he’s found out and pressed once more into service by the Prussian Army. They assign him to monitor a wealthy aristocrat named Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), who they suspect to be an Irish spy. Barry’s shared kinship with the Chevalier compels him to deceive the Prussians and form an alliance with his countryman that sees them roam the countryside and scam aristocrats out of their money in rigged games of cards and chance. Their adventures bring them into the social circle of Lord Lyndon, whose wife, Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), catches Barry’s eye. Determined to live out the rest of his days as a wealthy gentleman of leisure, Barry begins a not-so-secret affair with Lady Lyndon that strategically positions him to benefit the most from her ailing husband’s impending death. Surely enough, Lord Lyndon kicks the bucket and Barry weds Lady Lyndon, assuming the new mantle of Barry Lyndon. He commences living the leisurely life he aspires to, but his hedonistic pursuit of pleasure leads to domestic troubles and new enemies—the most formidable and underestimated of which is Lord Lyndon’s son, Lord Bullingdon, who seethes with hatred for Barry over the careless squandering of the family fortune and his inheritance.

In the 1970’s, Ryan O’Neal was at the peak of his career, and his performance as the titular Barry Lyndon remains perhaps the very tip of that peak. As Lyndon rises from rags to riches, only to fall back to rags once more, O’Neal applies a composed nuance to each stage of the journey. Lyndon’s decades-long growth from stubborn, idealistic lad to disdainful, hedonistic adult is given a convincing sense of the passage of time by O’Neal, who excels at projecting a world-weary countenance onto his boyish face. For Lady Lyndon, Kubrick looked to model Maris Berenson, who isn’t required to do much besides standing around in a silent, statuesque fashion. However, Berenson imbues the character with a layer of fundamental sadness masked by stoic composure that serves the story well as it draws to a close— when she signs off on an alimony check for her disgraced lout of a husband, she pauses and looks up for only the briefest of moments, but in that moment she lives a lifetime. Supporting performers of note include Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon, who would later go on to become Kubrick’s personal assistant and casting director on his final two films, as well as two veteran Kubrick performers on their second tour of duty: Patrick Magee and Philip Stone. Magee, who played the crippled political dissident in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, appears in BARRY LYNDON under an eye patch and a pound of white makeup as the aristocratic libertine and charlatan Chevalier de Balibari. Stone, who likewise appeared in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as Malcolm McDowell’s father, plays Graham, a meek banker for Lady Lyndon and an unexpected conspirator against Barry.

BARRY LYNDON is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful films ever made, and for good reason. Working once again with cinematographer John Alcott, Kubrick puts his prior experiments with natural light to masterful use in rendering the pre-electric world of BARRY LYNDON. Kubrick’s visual presentation differs radically from his previous works in that he presents scenes as carefully staged tableaus, expertly composed to provide staggering degrees of depth and resemble the paintings of 18th century artists like Thomas Gainsborough. The romantic feel of Kubrick’s compositions are further emphasized by the use of soft focus, which diffuses the frame’s highlights and adds to the film’s sense of Victorian glamor. Kubrick’s subjects and locales, impeccably designed with a careful eye to authentic period detail by DR. STRANGELOVE’s production designer Ken Adam, are lit almost entirely with existing natural light— an aesthetic choice that really accentuates the red and blue pops of color from British and Prussian military uniforms (respectively) against the golden earth tones of pastoral England. Kubrick was so intent on creating an authentic pre-industrial world that, in the process, he managed to pioneer an entirely new technology that would change filmmaking forever. Working with NASA, Kubrick developed a specialized lens that could capture a beautiful exposure using only a few candles. Many nocturnal scenes in BARRY LYNDON are lit entirely by candlelight, and the organic feeling of these scenes would be highly influential in the continued development of low-light technology, while its groundbreaking use in BARRY LYNDON would become one of the cornerstones of the film’s legacy.

Kubrick’s supreme confidence in his mastery of visual language is on full, flagrant display in BARRY LYNDON—the fact that he presents his scenes almost entirely in masters while rarely cutting away to other coverage speaks to the sheer audaciousness of Kubrick’s vision and technical prowess. The effect is staggering and stately, a reflection of the pompous rigidity of his subjects. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this approach would be endlessly boring, but Kubrick incorporates the unconventional filmmaking techniques of New Hollywood—techniques he himself helped to popularize—in order to breathe immediacy and energy into the proceedings. While there are a few characteristic tracking shots (one scene in particular recalls Kirk Douglas’ trench run in PATHS OF GLORY) as well as several instances of handheld, documentary-style photography, BARRY LYNDON mostly plays out in the aforementioned master tableaus, aided by the frequent use of zoom lenses to zero in on a particular detail within the scene or vice versa. Kubrick uses this conceit repeatedly; creating a hypnotic mood that pulls us deeper and deeper into his baroque vision.

At this point in his career, Kubrick had fully embraced the use of classical music over an original score, and to this end he enlisted Leonard Rosenman to create new arrangements of famous works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franc Schubert in addition to several Irish folk songs. BARRY LYNDON’s most memorable piece of music—George Frideric Handel’s “Sarabande”—was re-appropriated as a theme song of sorts, thundering along as Barry’s fate unfolds. While on the surface, the musical character of Kubrick’s classical selections does not run counter to the images they accompany (indeed, classical music seems to be a very conventional and appropriate choice for a story about the European aristocracy circa the 18th century), he nonetheless uses it subversively. The operatic “Sarabande” march in particular suggests the trials and tribulations of a great king—someone like, say, Napoleon Bonaparte. However, Kubrick bestows this theme not on a king or emperor, but on a peasant who lived large for a while and ultimately died as a penniless nobody who had contributed absolutely nothing to history. The sense of history and importance that Sarabande conveys runs counter to Barry Lyndon’s actual life, reflecting only his supreme narcissism.

Despite its regal, stuffy aesthetic, BARRY LYNDON contains all the visual hallmarks of its subversive maverick director. The combination of one-point perspective compositions and an omniscient narrator places the audience at an observant remove from the action. The story’s examination of Victorian culture in its heyday allows for the indulgence of Kubrick’s fascinations with baroque architecture as well as the ineffectual pageantry and customs of the aristocracy. Lyndon’s stint in the military also provides an opportunity for Kubrick to further explore violence in the circumstance of warfare, specifically the strangely self-sacrificial rituals of battle in the pre-Industrial era. In those days, antiquated notions of honor and valor were attached to leaving oneself open and exposed to enemy fire, as if taking cover to protect oneself was an act of cowardice. This can be seen in the gorgeously colored and decorated (yet highly visible) uniforms worn by soldiers, which certainly made them appear as magnificent gentleman but had the unfortunate side effect of advertising their location to their enemies from a great distance. The style of combat reflected this as well, with armies advancing on each other while politely taking turns in their exchange of fire—- effectively leaving the entire front line vulnerable and willingly exposed to a volley of musket balls. Under Kubrick’s hand, these notions of “civilized” warfare among gentlemen become highly curious and ironic. This idea is echoed on a smaller scale in the sequences wherein Barry participates in turn-based duels. In the world of BARRY LYNDON, violence has been institutionalized by the civilized as a means to resolve disputes or inflict disciplinary punishment, but in the process has lost the emotion and intimacy that makes it meaningful. Instead of violence being a reflection of our inhumanity to our fellow man, it is violence itself that has become inhuman.

Kubrick’s body of work is held in such high regard today that it’s easy to forget the release of his films were regularly met with something of a mixed bag in terms of reception. They were, understandably, ahead of their time, and many people didn’t quite know what to make of them. Many outright hated them, but nonetheless they knew they had to also respect them. This can certainly be said of BARRY LYNDON, whose release was met with modest box office success and mixed critical reception. A three hour-plus non-epic about the 18th century European aristocracy may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but damned if they didn’t respect it—- and respect it they did, all the way to the Oscars (where the film took home golden statues for Alcott’s cinematography, Adam’s production design, Rosenman’s score, and costumes and Kubrick himself was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay). Kubrick’s achievement here is nothing less than masterful, and while he would never get to make his long-gestating NAPOLEON film, he was able to channel that passion into making BARRY LYNDON a stone cold masterpiece—one that very well could have stood head and shoulders aboveNAPOLEON had he made it (and that’s not just because the French Emperor was a short man). In a filmography composed almost entirely of masterpieces, BARRY LYNDON stands out as quite possibly the finest of the bunch.

BARRY LYNDON is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Credits:
Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Executive Producer: Jan Harlan
Written by: Stanley Kubrick
Director of Photography: John Alcott
Production Designer: Ken Adam
Edited by: Tony Lawson
Music by: Leonard Rosenman