Like the protagonist of his film, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon has risen from humble circumstances, but with a meticulously and glowingly remastered re-release courtesy of the BFI, it looks like the film will be more resilient in the pinnacle it has reached than its unhappy hero. Although, there will be at least one piece in a major newspaper or blog somewhere claiming to despise the film. Such is the way of the world, a weary-sounding Michael Horden might comment.
On its initial release, Kubrick’s period drama was a commercial flop and the critical notices generally regarded it as a bore, a technical achievement of course, but a cold coffee table book of a movie, frozen in aspic and too reliant on the generosity of French critics to keep its reputation alive. The Shining would be a conscious attempt on the part of the director to win back a popular audience who had been disinclined to sit through a three hour movie set in the Eighteenth Century which decidedly refused to be a Tom Jones style romp. Many growing up with Kubrick’s films as a reference point might have gone through a similar trajectory of initial dislike, or lukewarm admiration on first encounter, giving way over the years of rewatching to wonder and something like love.
The film tells the tale of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), a romantic young man from the backwaters of Ireland who, following a disastrous love triangle between himself, his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and a British captain (a brilliant comic turn from Leonard Rossiter), finds himself abroad in the world. His picaresque adventures see him adopt the roles of soldier, deserter, lover, soldier once more, spy, card sharp until finally he manages to acquire for himself wealth and a new title by marrying Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). However, his failings as a husband and step-father – though not, tragically, father – his too naked ambition and his ignoble origins will ultimately lead to his ruin and much grief for all involved. Taken from William Thackery’s 19th Century novel, Kubrick dispensed with the first person narrative and made a crucial change to the ending. The original book is something like a proto-Flashman, a rogue’s confession, half the fun of which is unpicking the outrageous lies from the self- justification. Kubrick sees in his fickle adventurer a far more tragic figure, a fatherless man who encounters a series of step-fathers on his travels, before becoming one himself: a romantic who is disabused of his notions and becomes incapable of genuine romantic love. The dueling that runs through the film (much more so than in the book) stands as a perfect metaphor for the film itself, ritualistic, precise, formal, but containing (only barely containing) life and death, passion and tragedy.
Of course the film is gorgeous with its mixture of painterly – it’s almost obligatory to use the adjective in any discussion of Barry Lyndon – landscapes, handheld violence, perfectly composed portraits and candlelit scenes of chiaroscuro nightlife, captured by the masterful cinematographer John Alcott. The music from initial Gaelic airs to the delicate melancholy of Schubert – an allowable anachronism – and the finally knocking of fate that is Handel’s beefed up Sarabande confirms Kubrick as one of the deftest scorers of his own films.
Finally, something must be said about the film’s reputation for coldness. Partly this comes from Kubrick’s own interviews and his reputation as a chess-playing manipulator, but within the film, there is also the often aloof narration, the growing cynicism of Barry himself and those slow contemplative zooms. Barry blowing smoke in his wife’s face is a horrible image of cruelty and indifference, but we see it as exactly that. And the outbursts of genuine emotion are all the more sincere for being so long suppressed. Barry’s original injured love for Nora, his joy in befriending the Chevalier (Patrick Magee) and ultimately the grief at the death of his son are all beautifully played (O’Neal would never be so good before or since) and feel utterly sincere. There is a lot of comedy here too, with the a series of beautiful little cameos, from Rossiter – worth £1,500 a year – to Steven Berkoff’s dueling fop as well as the fatally splenetic cuckold Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass). It is a comedy of manners, not riotous knockabout certainly, but entirely fitting with the piece. Barry Lyndon is a rich cinematic experience which fully deserves to once more be seen on the big screen and enjoy its status as one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest achievements.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty