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Film Review: Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon (1975; Directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Adapting William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling picaresque novel about an Anglo-Irish rake’s rambling progress from penniless dependence to wealth and privilege, the legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick did a very interesting (and very Kubrickian) thing. Bulldozing the unreliable narration of Thackeray’s book with flattened affect, meticulous composition, and impressive technical achievement, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon maximizes the irony of the narrative by rendering it subtler and more underground. But this maximized irony is static, detached, and as cold as a hussar’s blade.

This effect is nowhere more evident than in the film’s opening scene. As the voice-over narration relates, with deadpan English literary understatement, how the protagonist’s father may have cut a fine figure in the profession of the law, small figures placed deep in the background of a finely-framed wide shot act out an evident duel scene. Pistols raise, fire, one man falls, and the dark comedy of the moment is perfectly delivered, as the voice-over reveals that the potential of Barry’s father is cut short by his death in a duel “over the purchase of some horses”. The human participants in this moment are never glimpsed more closely, their myriad hopes and fears and joys and pains left absent, their pathetic mortality reduced by their visual placements as much as by the casual slight contained in the narrative prose. They are models in Kubrick’s magnificent living diorama of the 18th Century, like static figures in one of the fashionable Rococo paintings that Barry later purchases (on credit that, as always, comes due). They have no agency or initiative in the upheavals of their own lives; their society moves them where it will, and it will rarely move them where they would wish to be.

The young Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal, entirely game for Kubrick’s dance of inscrutability) is constructed as similarly without agency over the direction of his fate, drifting into consecutive troubles that are seemingly pre-determined by his father’s ignominious end. Almost before he achieves adulthood, he fights a duel as well, with a British officer (Leonard Rossiter) over the hand of his beloved, saucy cousin (Gay Hamilton). Forced to flee his Irish home after apparently killing the officer, Barry flits through a series of adventures, his greedy fortune-seeking the only wind in his tattered sails. He is fleeced by highway robbers, fights for the British and for the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War, plays double agent for intelligence in post-war Germany, becomes a skilled gambler, swordsman, and intriguer across the continent. Eventually, Barry takes up with the beautiful Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) marrying her after her sickly husband expires and earning the indemnity of her son and heir, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), who sees Barry for the blackguard he inescapably is. The film ends as it begins, with a duel that does not turn out well for the man surnamed Barry.

This is all good as far as it goes, and Kubrick and O’Neal manage to make the various episodes of this picaresque engaging and worthy of viewer attention as they flow into each other. But the stiff richness of the visual spectacle is entirely the point, and Lyndon becomes, as one critic put it, a bit of a museum piece, its characters collected, classified and “pinned to the frame” like so many dried insect husks. The film is so very terribly composed, in all three dominant meanings of the words: collected and dignified, constructed with visual deliberation, and set into place with the crescendoes and lulls of a musical arrangement. Its cinematography and lighting (the scenes shot with only the natural light of candles are masterful and striking) slot into the gaps left by the locations, with precisely-chosen classical pieces melding perfectly with all other elements on the soundtrack. Bach, Mozart, or Schubert score a moving painting by Watteau or Gainsborough, undergirded by a literary voice of sly, understated social satire.

Kubrick’s films are legendary for their intellectual chill, their detachment from messy emotional realities. The shoe may well fit in the case of Barry Lyndon, but what a lovely shoe it is. And this detachment is essential to Kubrick’s project of irony. Barry Lyndon may not be as self-evidently (or as darkly) satirical as Dr. Strangelove, but by unmooring the heaving dramas of Thackeray’s version of the late-18th-Century privileged class from the implications of sentiment, Kubrick skewers its assumptions and conventions as surely as he once did to Cold War military brinkmanship.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. February 12, 2014 at 9:43 pm

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