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.

****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…