In production for almost 2 years and completed with a budget of $11 million, Stanley Kubrick’s epic filming of Thackeray’s “The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Es.” actually feels like a natural follow-up project to his prior literary adaptation, A Clockwork Orange (1971), and it certainly falls into his peculiar blend of darkly vicious humour, cruel violence, and grasp of absurdity.
The introduction of blank-faced Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in the film's first half has him fumbling his way through a seduction with his first cousin (Is he stupid, or merely childishly terrified of fair Nora’s heaving bosom?) and subsequently losing her hand to a sweaty, nervous British Captain Quin (Leonard Rossiter). Barry is forced to flee his hometown in fair Ireland after a rigged but supposedly deadly duel. He’s soon robbed by a father & son team, and then finds refuge in His Majesty’s Army during the Seven Year War which slaughtered a good chunk of Europe’s manly men.
Barry manages to escape, beds a healthy Prussian wench (lovely Diana Korner), but is caught by a wily Prussian Captain (venerable Hardy Kruger) and is forced into the Kraut army.
After performing a noble deed, Barry is given a special mission in Austria: entrap an Irish gambler known as the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee). After allying himself with the gambler and fleeing to (presumably) France, Barry meets the wife of a gout-ridden nobleman, and no sooner does the old fart tumble into death does Barry wed Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), take her married name & title, and become Barry Lyndon.
That’s Part I in a nutshell, chronicling Barry’s wonderful luck in avoiding death, doom, the law, and always getting the girl by the brilliance of his wits, but it all goes to hell in Part II as Barry’s unable to hold onto his riches and benefits because he’s a little shit at heart, and is utterly responsible for his downfall - payback for his prior deeds.
Barry’s Irish days in Part I are comprised of painfully funny send-ups of pretentious, stilted period romances: O’Neal appears to have been instructed by Kubrick to look befuddled for the film's first third, and the dialogue, among all of the characters, is ludicrously prosaic. It’s such a fine genetic strain of dryness, but Kubrick never goes too far: Barry is still engaging because his situations become increasingly horrible, but along the way he also loosens up, learns to stand up for himself, develops a quick mind, and O’Neal’s visage eventually starts to emote – important, since the film does run a hair over 3 hours, including Intermission.
Kubrick’s script ridicules the stilted qualities of mannered dramas and romances, and yet like Clockwork, things do get darker, as lives are destroyed. Perhaps the film’s most shocking scene has Barry’s stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) leading his half-brother into the music room wearing large clomping shoes.
Designed to provoke Barry, the deed is punctuated by a vicious chastisement of his stepfather in front of guests designed to bait Barry and destroy his social stature. Barry leaps and pulverizes his stepson, and it’s covered with handheld close shots reminiscent of the assaults in Clockwork – in-your-face, and ugly in its brutality.
A later scene where Barry is lying in bed, suffering the indignities of a duel, is disturbing for his fate, but there’s a sense the tone Kubrick was trying to maintain also evoked a bit of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: not bloody and brutal, but emotionally devastating; we feel a little for the bloke, but he’s been such a shit, he kind of deserved it.
Leonard Rosenman’s adaptation of classical pieces is quite wonderful, filled with lovely variations of the film’s main themes, including the exquisite ”Women of Ireland” theme composed by Sean O'Riada and performed by the Cheiftans, but the second half is almost exclusively filled with one classical piece that’s been edited into a hellish loop. Either Kubrick fell in love with his mix of found and re-orchestrated pieces, or he felt the maniacal repetition of a theme – literally played again and again across several scenes – enhanced the ridiculousness of the mounting tragedy of this messed up family.
For an audience, though, it’s brutal, because there’s no respite nor any silent pauses. It’s oppressive and excessive, and almost mucks up the careful tone Kubrick’s maintained with his cast, dialogue, and props (such as the golden carriage which carried his son Bryan on his seventh birthday, and later his body with pouting relatives).
Much has been written about the film’s look: Kubrick evokes Gainsborough paintings in composition and the use of natural lighting, and captured candlelight scenes using special Zeiss lenses originally developed for NASA.
They collectively make the film extraordinarily beautiful, but there’s also Kubrick’s use of zooms which are unlike others: he may be one of a few directors who can zoom out of a shot without audiences being aware of the camera’s movement because we’re so connected to the shot’s central drama. All the revealing peripheral information adds is minor detail, but sometimes the end of a shot functions like a written period, if not a frozen Gainsborough tableau.
John Alcott’s camerawork feels organic to the period, and Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray preserves as much detail as possible for the home theatre venue, but alongside Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978), this is a film that must be seen on the big screen.
The uncompressed DTS sound mix features a rich stereo surround track, and the music and nuances of interior and exterior scenes are rich and clear.
Like WHV’s Lolita [M] (1962), the film’s the star, and the only extra is a trailer, which again begs the question as to why a special edition couldn’t have been created. It’s next anniversary isn’t until 2016, so why not create a documentary, gather interviews, and record & edit a Criterion-styled commentary track about its production. There are probably a good 20 cinematographers who would kill to discuss the film’s look alone, and there’s no shortage of historians crazy to discuss where this drawing room epic fits in the director’s canon.
It’s the oddest thing with Kubrick’s films: with the exception of Criterion’s own special editions, none of the labels have taken advantage of the oral history that’s slowly fading as cast and crew die off, and yet they’ll add single or dual commentary tracks to a banal tent pole summer film.
Aspect ratio bitching
Prior to Barry Lyndon, Kubrick had hoped to make a biographical film about Napoleon Bonaparte, but in spite of the massive research and closeness to getting a green light for production, the project was cancelled, and one can see vestiges of the kind of military details in the battle scenes within Barry Lyndon.
Between 1975-1999, Kubrick had several projects he was interested in developing into feature films, but during that 24 year period, he only made 3 films: The Shining (1980) has moments of brilliance but ends on an incoherent note, whereas Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) are filled with the dark satire seen in his post-Spartacus work, albeit concentrated on the lunacy of war, and marital discord, respectively.
Leon Vitali would later become Kubrick’s assistant on his final three films. In 2001, during WHV’s revamped Stanley Kubrick Collection set, he discussed his association and friendship in a 2001 interview with The Digital Bits and DVD Talk. A further interview at DVD File (archived via Wayback) added some controversy when Vitali showed a certain favoritism towards non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfers.
During the launch of WHV’s new Blu-ray set of Kubrick films, Vitali was asked by Glenn Kenny regarding Barry Lyndon’s correct theatrical aspect ratio (1.66:1 versus 1.78:1), and several critics took some of his comments from related interviews to task, such as the High-Def Digest. WHV’s DVD offers a 1.78:1 transfer; the 1.85:1 ratio printed on the Blu-ray’s sleeve is incorrect.
Now go forth and enjoy the film.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan