Thursday, 26 May 2011
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leon Vitali
By Alan Bacchus
I’ve seen this film numerous times, but for some reason this latest viewing has convinced me that it’s one of Stanley Kubrick’s best. Despite critical praise and some Oscar nominations, the film wasn’t considered a success. No surprise, really. Even by Stanley Kubrick’s standards it’s a slow-paced three-hour epic featuring the director at his most dispassionate, cynical and cold. The story of Redmond Barry, the lowly Irish lad who worked his way up from a pathetic brat to being at the helm of a British aristocratic family, only to have it tumble down in devastating fashion, is perhaps the most structurally conventional film Kubrick has made.
Kubrick has always crafted the endings of his films very carefully, mostly favouring the oblique and jarring for thought-provoking effect. To this day, I still don’t know why he ended Eyes Wide Shut so abruptly on us. The Shining does this as well, though at least we know Jack’s dead at the end. And then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most beguiling of them all.
In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick arguably leaves us with his most satisfying ending, a fully complete character arc for Redmond, broken down both physically and emotionally, a comeuppance for his lifetime of deceit, immoral ambition and betrayal. But that’s the ending – let’s roll back to the opening.
Barry Lyndon’s three-hour running time is roughly split into two halves sandwiching a short intermission (customary back in the day for historical epics). The first half of the film describes Redmond Barry’s ascent to success with the wordy inter-title, ‘By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon.’ The elaborate title fits into Kubrick’s general themes of class and the utter silliness of how men and women were divided into preferential groups of right and title. But this is the ambition of Redmond, whom we first see as a youthful brat smitten by the flirtations of his cousin. Unfortunately for Redmond, the cousin has been ‘promised’ to a British Lord for a sum of 6 pounds a year. The conflict boils over into a duel of pistols between the Englishman and Redmond – a remarkably tense sequence bookended by a duel in the final act of the film (but more on that later). This duel is won by Barry, thus sending him out of the country and off on his lengthy journey.
It’s an episodic journey in the opening half of the film, the benchmarks of which include his recruitment into the British Army, his desertion, his recruitment into the Prussian Army, the companionship of an Irish ex-pat living as a gambler stealing the riches of other aristocrats and finally, by the end of the first half, his meeting of Lady Lyndon. Barry becomes her husband and partner to her family fortune.
The compartmentalization of the individual scenes is a delight, each sequence self-contained as a great cinematic set piece. And yet, with each new encounter, Barry gains experience and insight, which informs his decisions in the second half of the film. Barry observes and participates in the class warfare as an outsider, green with jealousy at the privileges their title affords them. And so when Barry joins this club, he exploits his position with the same naive, bratty entitlement of his youth.
The second half of the picture is markedly different, as its scenes are shot like a series of immaculately composed still images, glacially paced, slowly showing the destruction of Lyndon’s life. The more Lyndon self-destructs through fornication, ill treatment of his stepson and wanton disregard for the family’s finances, the more stolid the picture becomes. At times, an entire scene shows Lady Lyndon simply lounging morosely on a chair (a recurring image in all of Kubrick’s films) with the camera slowly zooming out to reveal the state of depression and decay of the household.
The conflict between Lord Bullington, Redmond’s stepson, and Redmond himself is marvellously engineered. Bullington’s sequestered and conflict-free life of privilege is no match for the life experience of Redmond. The performances of Ryan O’Neal and Leon Vitali are spot on. Vitali is delightfully pathetic as a quivering doofus scared to bits during his confrontations with Barry, and O’Neal always has the Kubrick ‘look of steel’, confident in his abilities to outduel his opponents, both physically and mentally.
One of the knocks on Kubrick has been a lack of emotion in his films. Fans and critics usually point to that scene at the end of Paths of Glory, which features the German song leading the soldiers to tears as his high moment of unabashed sentimentality. While not sentimental, no other scene in Kubrick’s body of work can compare to the earth-shattering tragedy of the death scene of young Bryan in Barry Lyndon. As Bryan lies on his bed, aware of these last moments of his life, the reactions of both Redmond and Lady Lyndon are simply earth shattering. And the subtle use of the recurring musical cue by Handel's Sarabande hypnotically lulls us into a trance. Kubrick’s glorious sharp cut to Bryan’s funeral after this scene is just as startling and masterful.
Kubrick surprisingly ends the journey with every thread tied up. Barry is fully punished for all his wrongdoings in the film, which thoroughly satisfies everything Kubrick has set up for us. There’s little to confuse or confound us. By the end, though aesthetically challenging, the film is unintellectual – a simple and ‘common’ story of greed. A true masterpiece.
Barry Lyndon is available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.