Skip to main content

Thus Barry fell into the very worst of courses and company. And was soon very far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct.


Barry Lyndon
(1975)

Barry Lyndon might be best seen as a response to the falling apart of Kubrick’s cherished Napoleon project. That was at a fairly advanced stage when the studio got cold feet and withdrew backing, on noting the poor showing of Waterloo. Kubrick moved on to cheapie A Clockwork Orange, but then resumed his quest for a period piece. He was first attracted to Thackery’s Vanity Fair but decided against it for what appears to have been a combination of the length required to do the book justice and a BBC adaptation that was in the offing. He then settled on another story by the author, one credited with originating the protagonist as anti-hero in literature (I suspect this is quite disprovable, but it sounds good).


What one senses from all this is of a director casting about for material that seems to loosely fit his criteria for a film. And I’d argue the finished piece bears that air of “Why did he want to make this?” The deliberate, measured pace of the three hour-plus film bears witness to a director able to make any material engrossing, but you end up questioning the wisdom of a number of decisions Kubrick makes.


I haven’t read Thackery’s novel, but my understanding it has a comic tone. Lyndon himself is the narrator, and an unreliable one at that; the reader is invited to question what has been invented and what is true. Kubrick makes the choice to considerably reduce the humorous elements of the story; indeed, the film plays out on tragic lines, albeit a tragedy where the viewer is not really invested in the events that befall the main character. There is a satirical edge admittedly, mostly due to Michael Hordern’s benign but unvarnished narration, but the characters are never encouraged to embrace the satire; they expose the absurdity of class pretensions with an icy precision.  While some have said that the film Kubrick ends up making is the anti-Napoleon, it strikes me as most comparable to a film made twelve years earlier in terms of what it is not. Tony Richardson’s version of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is very much the unfettered comedy, positing its commentary on class within the safety of the central character’s bawdy exploits. It also takes every opportunity it can to explore the artifice of its creation, which includes camera trickery (speeding up movement) and fourth wall-breaking. Crucially, and the biggest hurdle preventing Kubrick’s film from being a great rather than a merely good film, it has a lead performance full of charisma and energy (from Albert Finney).


Kubrick (quote courtesy of wiki) commented of two of his decisions on adapting the material:

I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting. Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry's view of his life. This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, in a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray's first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen. It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry's version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don't think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy.


I suppose the next question is, “Why don’t you think Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy, Stanley?” Not only does the absence of Barry as narrator reduce our connection with the character (just look at Alex in A Clockwork Orange to see how we can be made to identify with a reprehensible character through confidential voice over), the casting of Ryan O’Neal renders him devoid of any qualities that explain his rise through society – other than prettiness.


Warner Bros made the casting of a Top 10 box office star a condition of financing the film. The most recent such list came out in 1973, and feature O’Neal at No.2. It was the only time he made the grade. Clint was top, and the other males on the list were Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Charles Bronson, John Wayne and Marlon Brando. Kubrick’s pick was Redford, who turned the role down. So who was there left to go to? In those terms, O’Neal makes sense (although the absurdist in me quite likes the idea of Steve McQueen in the part) but he’s a vacuum at the centre of the film. He’s adept enough at the cruel rejection his character must display towards Maria Berenson’s Lady Lyndon, but never conveys Barry’s initial naivety nor the charisma that would have enabled him to inveigle himself into society or succeed in his criminal enterprises. The result of this is that we feel nothing for Barry for most of the film; we are indifferent to his fortunes and misfortunes. He either exposes himself as a fool or a bastard; the only moments where he is allowed sympathy are those where the story proffers it to him; at no point does O’Neal’s performance provide that. So the evidencing that Lyndon very much loves his natural son is a small grace, and the duel with Lord Bullingdon grants him a certain ambiguous nobility (but too little too late).


Indeed, Lyndon generally only appears as a remotely sympathetic character because those around him are so without merit. Right from the start, we encounter Barry with his manipulative cousin Nora. She makes him look the fool, but also exposes his petulant bravado. Leonard Rossiter’s Captain Quinn is a preening cad (Rossiter’s second film with Kubrick, following 2001); Captain Grogan is benign but motivated by money and willing to deceive; Captain Potzdorf takes Barry under his wing but this only reveals that his first judgement of Lyndon’s character was the correct one. Patrick Magee’s Chevalier, who makes Barry his partner in gambling is, like many of the supporting turns, a shot in the arm for the film, but further highlights how unappealing Barry is. It’s these characters that carry us through the first act of the film, supporting the lacklustre O’Neal. But when he marries Lady Lyndon the film is stricken with roles that don’t even hint at roguish charm or compelling motivation.


Berenson (a former model) is captivating to look at but allowed no insight. She earns her son’s disapproval for carrying on with Barry while her husband is still alive (said husband is provided a scene of hilarious venom, wonderfully delivered by a sozzled Frank Middlemass), and we find it difficult to sympathise because she seems to allow the uncaring Lyndon to walk all over her. First in his extra-marital carryings on, then in his doomed attempts to purchase a title for himself (thus throwing away much of the Lydon fortune). Leon Vitalli’s Bullingdon has good reason to loathe Barry, but he comes across as a petulant little shit. Others, such as Barry’s mother and the Reverend Runt are as evidently acting chiefly for their own interests.


Hordern’s narrator is our only real friend, the only character in the film who is presented as of sound judgement or sympathetic personality.


Appropriately, for such a precisely made film, all the awards it received were in technical categories. It took Oscars for art direction, cinematography (John Alcott famously shot in mostly natural –and candle – light), costume design and musical score (Leonard Rosenman’s arrangements of Schubert and Handel – it is the latter’s Sarabande that forms the film’s main theme, pervading events with an aura of melancholy and inevitability). Kubrick was nominated for Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Incidentally, Brian Blessed had a role in the film but he was cut. He was likely too BIG and BOOMING a presence.


Barry Lyndon is compelling in spite of its failings. There’s something hypnotic about the pace, and the method with which Kubrick casts his protagonist as a plaything of fate. But Ryan O’Neal’s non-performance leaves the film hungry for more sustenance, greedily consuming every supporting character that comes its way but leaving us wanting more. This isn’t a replay of 2001, where the buttoned down performances of the actors contributed thematically to overarching ideas. Here, we wonder why the director was lured to the material in the first place and, as accomplished as the result is, whether it was worth the effort.

****

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much