Weekend Film Recommendation: Barry Lyndon

Now that the wintry November weekends make staying indoors for whole afternoons acceptable, you might need a long film to wile away the day. It’s a perfect opportunity to go back and watch Stanley Kubrick’s period masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), based on the Thackeray novel of a similar name.

The story unfolds in two acts. Act I sees a young Redmond Barry, played by a chisel-jawed Ryan O’Neal, being deceived by the noble English suitor to his beloved cousin. In disgrace and determined not to be outdone again by a fellow of superior birth, he departs from his life of poverty in rural mid-eighteenth century Ireland. Upon having his every penny stolen by Irish highwaymen, Redmond enlists in the British Army, and is shipped off to the continent to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

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But ennoblement is hard to come by for young Redmond, so he deserts for want of a life elsewhere where he may enjoy gentlemanly recognition. His desertion is unsuccessful, however, and he is soon enlisted yet again, albeit this time in the Prussian forces. Barry’s captain assigns him the task of keeping an eye on a suspected spy by the name of the Chevalier de Balibari (played by Patrick Magee), a notorious libertine who swiftly teaches young Redmond the art of inveiglement. Barry takes to the pretense rather fondly.

Barry soon wants to have a go at this aristocracy lark for real, and cuckolds the fabulously wealthy Count Lyndon with the buxom Countess (played by Marisa Berenson). All Barry needs is to drop his Irish “Redmond,” adopt the noble English “Lyndon,” and he is well on his way to securing a future for himself. When Act II begins, however, Barry realizes he still has much yet to learn about how to be a true gentleman.

Kubrick made no secret out of the fact that one of his great ambitions in life was to produce a monumental biopic about the life of Napoleon, and Barry Lyndon certainly comes close—not only in period, but also in scope—to Abel Gance’s 1927 epic. There’s something about the film’s duration (clocking in at well over three hours), range (the plot arc spans much of Europe, and the dramatis personae includes everyone from paupers to high bourgeoisie), and style (the film is a cinematographer’s delight) that shows Kubrick is holding back even less than is his wont. Be glad that’s the case: a sweeping narrative with a variety of themes such as this wouldn’t lend itself to restrained film-making in the first place.

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The sheer complexity of themes addressed in Barry Lyndon is staggering. At the same time as being pathetically superficial, Barry’s lifelong project to secure for himself a position of nobility is also profound and sympathetic. In between all his dalliances with corseted beauties and boozy card games with fellow dissolutes, Barry is always addressed as Mister Barry Lyndon – a salty reminder of his origins in destitute rural Ireland. He may be the man of the Countess Lyndon’s house, but he is far from being in control of his precarious position. The film is simultaneously an examination of class tension, colonialist legacies, the social pressures of genteel living, and mauvaise foi.

Kubrick deftly captures Thackeray’s biting satire of bourgeois pretense, and it’s no secret that many scenes look like they were story-boarded by Hogarth himself. Barry’s increasing plaintiveness at the tribulations of not being taken seriously as a nobleman is as comic as it is infuriating. There is, after all, something clearly off-track about Barry when he fails to make the connection that his gentlemanly repute isn’t as easily or swiftly purchased as he had originally intended. After more than three hours, you can’t help but want to grab Barry by his impeccable silken jacket and shout that it’s precisely because of his conniving efforts to become a gentleman that so many indignities befall him; it’s therefore not the case, as so perplexes him, that his actions ought in any sense to prevent him from falling into disrepute. He damn well deserves his ignominious fall… That is, until the final scene (a departure in Kubrick’s film from the original novel), in which Barry duels the man he has most dishonored. For what seems like the very first time since his self-imposed exile at the beginning of the film, Barry does the noble thing, and it does him no good at all.

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While Barry is about as oblivious as they get, our narrator (voiced by Michael Hordern, who has appeared in a surprising number of RBC reviews; see here, here, and here) is so knowledgeable that he smugly reveals plot developments well before they happen. Although the matter-of-fact delivery is well suited to the role, the narrator’s contribution serves to alter the tone of the story from one of comedy to one of immense tragedy. And the tone is meticulously constructed. For example, the soundtrack, which includes a deeply evocative set of re-interpretations of Handel’s Sarabande depending on the mood, serves to reinforce Roger Ebert’s point that “We don’t just see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on.”

It’s hard to find O’Neal’s acting noteworthy, but this isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve written before that under-stated acting by the lead can work well when the rest of the screen is filled with visual bombast (e.g., see my reviews of Manhunter and Dances with Wolves). But unlike those films, Barry’s passivity is itself an important plot device, even if it’s unclear whether it’s the product of vapidity or instead resignation in the face of his inevitably unpleasant fate.

Much more remains to be said about Barry Lyndon, but nonetheless it’s abundantly apparent that Kubrick labored over every single frame. And with attention like that, what more could you really need?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.