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

  1. I have three random thoughts. Firstly I've always wondered what the film would have been like if Kubrick had cast Donald Sutherland as Barry. He would have been perfect. Secondly the cinematography is wonderful except for the use of zoom lenses, which dates the film badly. And thirdly, a few years after it came out it became fashionable for pop stars to dress in period costumes - I've always wondered if it was because of this film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sutherland would have been excellent. Barry Lyndon influencing New Romantics? Why not, A Clockwork Orange influence punk.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

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…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.