Directed Viewing: The Humour and Tragedy of “Barry Lyndon”

Directed Viewing is the weekly series where I take a look at the filmography, movie by movie of noteworthy, prolific, or otherwise interesting directors in an attempt to establish a greater understanding of not only their work, but of movies in general. Yes, it’s very auteur, but I don’t see any reason to apologize for that. Previous projects can be found here.

We’re starting to wind down on Kubrick’s career now, entering the later period where he made films with a level of autonomy and funding nearly unheard of in the present day. Anything he touched would be critically popular enough that he nearly had pick of the films he was going to make. Not absolute free reign, of course, initially Kubrick was interested in developing a Napoleon story that fell apart when Waterloo underperformed in 1970. Kubrick, undeterred, kept looking for just the right period property, nearly doing an adaptation of Vanity Fair and managing to make A Clockwork Orange in the ensuing years.

When he finally decided on his project, however, it would become one of his most ambitious projects yet—a movie that would go down in history as the odd man out of Kubrick’s career.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

I know you’re going to be horribly disappointed that I tip my hand so early into this article, but much like the hero of the film that bears his name, I have little in the way of patience and must profess: Barry Lyndon is far and away my favorite Kubrick film. It’s all downhill from here (though don’t worry, we still have good movies ahead) in terms of his career and this project. That this is the movie I have seemingly attached my affections to is, admittedly, a little strange.

Barry Lyndon is an adaptation of the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, heavily adapted by Kubrick. It begins with an unnamed, seemingly omniscient narrator describing the circumstances of one young Redmond Barry, son of an Irishman who was killed in a duel, raised in the house of his uncle. Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is the kind of man who seemingly cannot ever get ahead in life, mostly due to his own self-sabotage. From his youth, spent pining for a cousin he’ll never be able to marry, Barry is the architect of all his problems, rushing willy nilly from one problem to the next. It starts with his cousin, who is entering into a courtship with a British officer in order to set the beleaguered family finances to right.

Barry, unable to accept the idea that the universe will not immediately bend to his whim, challenges the officer to a duel. The duel itself is something of a sham, with the British officer obviously sweating and fearful of his life. He continually gives Barry every graceful exit he can manage, including giving him money to flee to Dublin with, but Barry’s wounded pride will have none of it. They draw pistols and fire, and the British officer falls. Pronounced immediately dead, the seconds inform Barry that he’ll have to flee to Dublin anyway, this time as a fugitive wanted for murder. Barry, now on the run, heads off for a place where moments later he refused to go.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there is rarely a time that it isn’t.

Such is the way of Barry’s entire life. The first half of the film, titled appropriately ‘By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon’ charts the early years of Barry, from his initial sojourn from home to being ruined by highway robbers, to his eventual entry and desertion from both the British and Prussian armies during the Seven Years War. Barry spends most of this time failing upwards through society, gaining skills and even more confidence along the way as he takes and takes from the opportunities provided him.

Much of this is guided along at a brisk pace for such a lengthy amount of time by the unnamed narrator, who regales the exploits of Barry with something between wry amusement and the genuine sympathy of a loving yet disapproving family member. The narrator is firmly in Barry’s camp, even if the film rapidly juxtaposes the reality is not quite up to the standards set by Barry’s intentions vis a vis that narrative thread. In one of the most blatant examples, the narrator goes on at length after Barry deserts the British army as to how Barry was now free to live out his goal of becoming a true gentleman. Even as the narration is winding down, Barry comes across a young Prussian mother, caring for the son left to her by the husband who has gone off to war. In less time than it took the narrator to try to lay out Barry’s honorable intentions, he’s taken in by the woman and to her bed, where he lays on the compassion thick and cheesy so long as it suits him to do so.

The elegance of the world of Barry Lyndon is only a sheen on the awful nature of its inhabitants.

Eventually, after many years of adventures throughout Europe, he finds himself having stumbled headlong into the highest parts of society as the cohort of a professional gambler, cheating the highest lords and princes out of their money as they dash around the courts of the Western world. It’s here Barry decides to lay down roots, scheming his way into the heart of the beautiful and wealthy Countess of Lyndon. She has an elderly husband already, but Barry’s indiscreet manner draws so much attention to the indiscretions of Countess Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) that her husband keels over from a heart attack in the middle of yelling at Barry about how he was going to live a long life just to spite him. The narrator calmly begins to read the obituary, the volume fading off as the film recognizes the inevitable and cuts to intermission.

The second part of the film, titled ‘Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon’ picks up after Barry’s marriage to Countess Lyndon. Now styling himself as a man of means with her name and her money, Barry indulges in the life of a gentleman he has long desired. This typically means whoring his way through England and using her considerable fortune to pamper himself in indulgent opulence. Lady Lyndon, realizing too late the trouble she’s gotten herself into, retreats into a quiet life with her chaplain and her 10 year old son from her first marriage, the titled Lord Bullingdon. Bullingdon, with all the sense of a mannered gentlemen even as a kid, hates Lyndon and sees him as a usurper to what by rights should be his.

The scenes of war, though few, are some of Kubrick’s most ambition shooting since Spartacus.

Years pass, and Bullingdon grows up into an oppressed, passive-aggressive weakling of a Lord, subjected to Barry’s aggressive rule over the household and brushed aside in his parents’ affections when Barry and Lady Lyndon give birth to a son, Bryan. Barry, absolutely in love with his son, for a while almost redeems himself in terms of how he acts. But all it takes is a visit by his mother to set him back on the path to ruin. She points out, rather rightly, that he is only the head of the household as long as Lady Lyndon is alive. If she were to die, Lord Bullingdon would get everything, and promptly throw Barry and his son out into the street.

This convinces Barry to spend what fortune he still has trying to bribe his way into a title of his own, not only a wildly expensive idea but one that gains him only a long train of hangers on, people who are happy to be friends so long as he’s got money to throw around, lavishly throwing parties and overspending on art in order to grease the incredibly slow wheels of royalty. What it also does is prove to be the last straw for Bullingdon, who upbraids Barry so virulently in public that Barry responds (in character) with physical violence, assaulting Bullingdon publicly. As you might expect from 18th century society, this makes all his friends disappear, and all his creditors take this turn of fortune to have all their bills come due, nearly ruining him.

The amount of darkness in the interior shots is one of the richest details of the film. I can think of few films lit nearly as well as this one.

As one might expect from the title of this segment, Barry does not turn things around in the eleventh hour. As is Kubrick’s wont, the movie continues to heap problems on top of Barry, including family tragedy and falling into drink. In the end, Bullingdon decides the only recourse is to challenge Barry to a duel, putting Barry in the inverse of the situation he found himself at the beginning of the movie. Barry isn’t lucky enough to have the duel end cleanly, however, and ends up short one leg and a family fortune, being offered only a paltry stipend to abandon his claim as husband of Lady Lyndon and leave England forever. A middle-aged Barry, wounded in body and spirit, at least has learned when to take a final offer of help, and leaves the frame of the story a truly beaten man.

In many ways, this is very in keeping with Kubrick’s style, a film that offers a sort of cynicism about the world at large and how society and the individual interact. These are common themes, but in Barry Lyndon they’re presented with the distance of time and perspective. There isn’t quite the urgency of many of his other films, a sense that regardless of how poignant the story is at any given moment, in the end it’s all just a story smoothed over by the passage of time, sharpness removed by erosion. In fact, the epilogue of the movie consists of a single end title card, that states:

It was in the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.

Many of the sequences of the film are wide establishing shots like this one, based off pastoral paintings of the time.

That darkly pastoral ideal trickles down to the filming itself, too. Barry Lyndon, like most of Kubrick’s later work, was as known for its technical and artistic achievements as for the movies themselves. In Barry Lyndon‘s case, it is the incredible lack of artificial lighting in the movie. The entire film is lit by sunlight or candle light, which necessitated constructing entirely new cameras and lenses with which to capture the gloom of dark rooms and flickering candlelight with any sort of detail. What this does accomplish is to drape the entire film in a warm, natural glow that evokes paint more than it does film. For anyone who watches the film, it would come to no great shock to learn that many of the wide shots were constructed to emulate the paintings of the time, pastoral landscapes and domestic tableaux painstakingly recreated on film. It’s a kind of thematic cohesion that draws us keeper into this world and it’s customs, keeping the modern commentary of Kubrick’s authorial voice much more muted than it would be in many of his other socially conscious films.

But all of this is part of the reason it is regularly the dark horse of Kubrick’s later filmography. It’s not a meticulous art piece on the scale of 2001. It’s not a rock star hotel trashing film like A Clockwork Orange. Instead, Barry Lyndon is content to be human: often sad, often funny, but complicated in that it often frustrates as often as it rewards. The scope of the film is enormous, presenting nearly a full life of a man who lived large and across a wide swath of history, and it still manages to come out the other side with its soul intact. That, arguably, is the boldest achievement in Kubrick’s career. Redmond Barry, unsympathetic jerk of the ages, laid bare and made human and relatable before our eyes.

Barry Lyndon: hero, tragic figure, and total louse.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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