1975 // UK, USA // Stanley Kubrick
Barry Lyndon is a film that requires to be watched in a big screen, not the big screen in a home theater set-up but the direct projection (film or digital) in the theater with a prevailing solemn atmosphere; it’s like admiring a vintage painting, you can’t say you had seen it unless you are looking directly at the authentic painting directly in person. Watching Barry Lyndon evokes a feeling akin to admiring a historical painting in the museum or studying a documentary of a bygone milieu. Stanley Kubrick recycled the tremendous background research for his passionate yet aborted Napoleon biopic project, and transposed the materials into an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”. The end product is a three-hour 18th century historical epic that strove for the uttermost authenticity.
Famously shot with natural light only, either direct or stimulated, the film has a melancholic and meticulous look that demonstrated Kubrick’s perfectionism. Three NASA developed superfast 50mm lenses were used to shoot the indoor candlelit scenes, the resulted yellowish hue and nostalgic aura, together with the impeccable set and costume design and the use of classical music, constituted a transfixing re-creation of a lost era. An era in which England was reigned by George III and where, as the epilogue stated, “good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now”. But are they? Maybe they were equally subjected to misfortunes and disasters befallen upon by fate, or aspired to be the upper class if not already born as one. Perhaps the idealised way to equalise both sides of argument without resorting to justification was dueling with guns, the quintessential method to resolve a quarrel and retain dignity if not die cowardly. The film was bookended with two major duels, the first one that essentially drove the protagonist away from his mother and hometown, and the last one basically ended all.
When Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) fired the first shot to the ground instead of aiming his opponent, his step son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), he decidedly gave up the chance of winning the duel. Chances have always been present for our opportunistic titular character, born as the Irishman Redmond Barry before marrying the widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), so do misfortune and injustice. Barry was deceived by his uncle and relatives in believing he has killed Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) in a duel over the love of Barry’s cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), and soon he fled but robbed by Captain Feeney (Arthur O’Sullivan) a highwayman. Without money, Barry joined the British Army and encountered Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley), a honorable friend he met back in his hometown. Yet shortly after they arrived in Germany and participated in battle (the Seven Years’ War), Captain Grogan is killed and Barry deserted. Barry was later captured and forced to enlist in the Prussian army. Throughout the Act 1, we witnessed the subtle and inevitable transformation of Barry from a naive young boy to an adaptable survivalist.
By fate and his own merits, Barry was employed by the Prussian Police to spy on the Irishman Chevalier du Balibari (Patrick Magee), a professional gambler and a suspected spy. Barry smartly worked as a double agent and formed a trustful bond with the Chevalier. When they finally escaped from the Prussian, they collaborated as travelling casino host and debtor. And just before the end of Act 1, Barry met Countess Lyndon, the then-still wife of the feeble Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass). Immediately, they were romantically attracted to each other, and shortly after Sir Lyndon died, as Act 2 began, they was married and Barry was renamed as Barry Lyndon. If the first half of the film is an adventurous story of a boy and how he matured as a man and climbed up the social ladder, the second half is the downfall of the misguided man, just like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941). In Act 2 we get a closer look of a flawed man, how’s his infidelity and ambition almost ruined the marriage; yet we are also undeniably moved by his affectionate love to his son Bryan (David Morley) and his eventual lost.
The story of Barry Lyndon is told in a linear and conventional fashion, but narrated by an omniscient present (Michael Hordern). Scholars have described the narration as a mean of distancing the spectator from the protagonist, thereby alienating our emotion as a critique to Kubrick’s cold approach to human characters. The narrator often foretold the outcome of the story, yet still engaged us with the process. The comment on the social issues and background information provided by the narrator are, intentional or not, satirical and comical at times, and by all means emphasized the elements of time and space in the unalterable past. Kubrick adopted lots of 18th and 19th century painting as reference for the film’s composition and mise-en-scène besides merely authenticity reason, that could accounts for the general sense of stiffness of Barry and Lady Lyndon and their lack of emotional response, except on the occasion of the death of their beloved one. The performance, in my opinion, echoed the “models”, instead of actors, in the films of Robert Bresson. Barry and Lady Lyndon are characters existed at a time that I can never completely comprehend; cold as they might be, I immensely enjoy every single seconds of the film and seldom a period film would arouse my affection like that.
Film Rating: 4.5/5