Barry Lyndon: Stanley Kubrick’s ice-cold exercise in pure cinema is also his most emotionally rich and perfect movie

Barry Lyndon(1975), adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick from William Thackeray’s novel, is perhaps Kubrick’s greatest film. The film, starring Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, charts the rise and fall of its amoral hero, Redmond Barry, in the backdrop of the tumultuous events in Eighteenth-century Europe.

I find Stanley Kubrick to be a bundle of contradictions. He was an innovator and a traditionalist: He chooses traditional film genres and recreates them in very innovative ways. He has never written an original screenplay (by his own admission, he is incapable of doing it), but he picks up published works from great authors and goes about deconstructing them in his idiosyncratic style. He is a great formal artist, who breaks several existing movie conventions about style and technique, but who is loathe to use an original score for his movies; instead, depending on classical works of old maestros. Though Kubrick comes across as a modern man of science, fatalism is a major theme in all his films: his heroes have very little control over their destinies, and despite their best efforts, they can only delay their fate but never triumph it. Kubrick is also a famous\notorious perfectionist, who aspires for hundred percent perfection in each and every frame of his movies, and willing to go to any lengths, and spend any amount of time and effort to achieve this; a scene being retaken almost hundred times and shooting schedules that go on for more than a year are quite a routine occurrence on his movies. Kubrick’s 1975 film, “Barry Lyndon“, represents the apex of his creative powers as well as a perfect blending of his artistic contradictions- leading to, what I consider, his most ‘perfect’ film. Though Kubrick aspires for perfection with every film of his, i think “Barry Lyndon” is one instance where he unquestionably achieved it. I place this film alongside other ‘perfect’ masterpieces like “The Godfather,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Raging Bull” etc.; all of which epitomes the concept of cinema as art accomplished within a mainstream commercial format, and which cannot be further improved in any way.

Barry Lyndon could have been  a swashbuckling romance in the great tradition of a Douglas Fairbanks or an Errol Flynn movie; Or it could have been a bawdy romp like Albert Finney’s Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson. But instead, Kubrick decided to turn it into an extravagant, glacially-paced, contemplative, art film, where you feel the passage of time- befitting people’s lifestyle in mid to late eighteenth century (European high society). There are movies that are so visually beautiful that it could be said that every frame is a painting. But Barry Lyndon goes beyond even those epithets. Not only every frame of the film is as beautiful as a painting, but every frame is based on some  existing painting, mainly the works of William Hogarth. Almost every Kubrick film is a showcase for some major innovation in Cinematic technique\technology – in 2001 a space Odyssey it was the revolutionary visual effects; in The Shining, it was the unprecedented use of the ‘Steadicam’. On Barry Lyndon, Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott set themselves the task of shooting as many sequences as possible without recourse to electrical light. The exteriors are all shot in natural sunlight, while the densely furnished interiors are shot either through light filtered through doors and windows (for day) and candle light (for the night sequences). Of course, scenes shot in candlelight is not something new; the great cinematographer Gregg Tolland had already done this for John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath (1940).” But that was a Black & White film, and it wasn’t used to the extend to which Kubrick wanted to use this technique here. Also, Kubrick was not going to build any sets, he wanted to do everything in real locations (castles & fortresses). Eventually, Kubrick & Alcott achieved the look that they wanted with a number of super-fast 50mm lenses developed by Zeiss – used by NASA in the Apollo moon landings. It goes without saying that “Barry Lyndon” look like no other costume drama made before or since. There are two most notable aspect of the film’s path breaking visual style: one, of course, that it was mostly shot in natural light\candlelight, the other that most of the scenes consist of a slow backward zoom that continuously expands the frame, until a tight close-up is transformed into a medium\long shot (without a cut).

Now coming to the plot of the film, which is based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, it mainly follows the picaresque journey of an opportunistic\caddish Irish lad born to a modest family in the mid-18th century. Though the novel is written in first-person, Kubrick has gone for a third-person narrative, with a god-like narrator looking down and commenting upon an amoral character of modest lineage determined to climb the social ladder by hook or by crook. After a fateful duel for unrequited love, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) enlists in the British army, fights in the Seven Years’ War, and in time deserts his post. Caught by Prussians, and forced to join up the Prussian army to escape punishment for desertion, he ends up becoming a good, trustworthy soldier, who’s assigned to detective\spy work in post-war Vienna. But once he comes face to face with a fellow countrymen, the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a Card-shark\con-man, Barry deserts his post again; and joins up with Balibari for months of scheming exploits throughout Europe. Here, Barry also comes into contact with Lady Lyndon(Marisa Berenson), the wife of the venerable & wealthy, Sir Charles Lyndon – an old-age cripple; Barry unscrupulously seduces Lady Lyndon, and since luck is on his side, Sir Charles soon passes away, leaving Barry free to marry Lady Lyndon. They do get married and the now-named Barry Lyndon spends his wife’s fortune without restraint, earning a reputation of some stature for himself, all the while quarreling with his new stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). Barry and Lady Lyndon has a child together; though, because Barry has no title, neither he nor his son would be allowed access to the Lyndon fortune should Lady Lyndon die. To earn a title, Barry doubles down on his spending (bribes & lavish balls for those in power), but his ongoing clash with Lord Bullingdon leads to a scandalous public display of violence that sours his chances. To compound his miseries, his son tragically dies in a horse-riding accident, and his wife tries to commit suicide. Not able to stand aside as a silent spectator anymore while Barry destroys his mother and their family fortune, Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel. In the duel, Barry loses a leg as well as his claim to the Lyndon fortune. In the end, the hero’s unchecked ambitions become his undoing; he is left alone and broke, beset by family tragedy. The film’s narrator explains that Barry’s remaining years are suspect; he’s thought to have traveled to the New World, where he resumes his gambling exploits to no avail. The film ends with an epilogue: “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.

Stanley Kubrick usually makes very cold films; whether it’s a horror film like “The Shining” or a sexually-charged marital drama like “Eyes Wide Shut,” he always frames his narrative from an ironic distance from the characters, and more often than not, allows his technique to overwhelm\trivialize the characters and their emotions. Barry Lyndon is no different; every frame is filled with the kind of pomp, pageantry and period detail that is intentionally designed to diminish the characters; the characters coming across as either prisoners, or even immaterial, to this almost pre-programmed world of rituals, formalities, formations and extravagant decadence that exists, and would go on existing irrespective of the presence or absence of these characters. The ‘zoom’ shot that he frequently employs – that always starts off very close to a character and then expands and expands to show off the world in which the character inhabits – is very much a devise to diminish the importance of characters; they have no value or importance of their own, and their value is defined by their surroundings. And what ‘surroundings’ too; the film looks so heartbreakingly beautiful that I doubt there ever was a more beautiful ‘looking’ film made in the history of cinema: The costumes, the sets, the set dressing, the framing, the lighting, the use of color, everything is exquisite and perfect. Of course, this is a very cynical film that takes a very unsympathetic view of the humankind, and the visual beauty of the world only enhances the ugliness of its characters.

And Kubrick has carefully chosen his actors to portray these vile and decadent characters; he is primarily concerned with their ‘look’ rather than their talent; he mostly prefers non-actors\actors with limited talent so that he could program them to speak and gesticulate in such a way that they come across as only slightly animated portions on the large canvases on which he is creating these massive paintings. He wants them to seamlessly blend in to this world and not to stand out from it. Therefore, there are very few scenes where characters have emotional outbursts; all throughout the film, the characters, even when they are talking with extreme cruelty or animosity, contain their emotions; their overly made-up, ghostlike faces coming across as masks that hide their true emotions- just like the overwhelmingly cold technique and visual ostentatiousness hides the real emotional turmoil inherent in the story. The ‘look’ is the main reason why Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson were chosen for their characters; you cannot have either British thespians like Albert Finney or Peter O’Toole, or new-Hollywood actors like Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino in this film; all of them are too talented and posses too distinct personalities that would make them stand out in the film. O’Neal is not exactly an untalented actor, but he doesn’t have a powerful persona, and Berenson is just a model, Except for one scene each, where each one of them loses control over themselves- which actually leads to big turning points in the film – they are almost passive in their performances to the point of being emotionless. The most overtly emotional aspects of the film is its narrator (Michael Hordern) and the carefully selected pieces of classical music, mainly Shubert’s piano trio and Handel’s ‘Sarabande.’

Kubrick’s agenda for the film is on display right from the first frame of the film: the opening image is that of Barry’s father shot to death in a duel; Kubrick’s large frame renders the characters into specks within a larger expanse. This a pivotal moment in Redmond Barry’s life; the death of his father will deprive him of a powerful & mature male figure in his life to look up to, and, hence, will have him searching for father figures all through his life. This also cements a special bond between him and his mother, who would not remarry after her husband’s death and dedicates her life to looking after her son. The image also establishes the motif of ‘a duel’ that permeates the film, not only the one with weapons (which there is plenty), but throughout the film, we will see men square off against each other in a dueling position (whether playing cards or during conversations\confrontations)and assail each other with words (rather than guns or swords). The next few scenes details Barry’s tryst with first love; he falls genuinely in love with his cousin Nora, who, in turn, treats him as a plaything – as a parrot or a lapdog to amuse her till she marries a gentleman of stature and wealth. Enter the said gentleman, Capt. John Quin, an English soldier of property- to whom Nora’s family owes a lot of money; once Nora is married to Quinn, the debt will be considered settled.

Now, Stanley Kubrick may make very serious films, but all his films, starting with “Lolita,” has lots of humor, dark or satirical, and “Barry Lyndon” is no different. Though the film is not a comedy per se, Kubrick never let go of a chance to satirize the characters whom he (or Barry) hold in contempt, and hence Barry’s romantic rivals are portrayed as pathetic idiots. After Barry insults Quinn, he is challenged to a duel. The duel is designed pretty much like the first one in which Barry’s father was killed, this one is less expansively (and more intimately) framed, because, while Barry’s father died over a dispute over purchasing horses (possibly involving money), this one, from Barry’s perspective, is for love, though it’s evident that Quinn’s wealth is a contributing factor to the duel. Leonard Rossiter turns in an incredibly funny performance as the vain, pompous, but inwardly coward, Quinn- every moment he’s on screen (from that funny dance to the even more funny duel) is a delight. Barry shoots and fatally wounds Quinn, and he’s advised to leave for Dublin by his cousins to escape the repercussions. On his way to Dublin, Barry runs into a father & son duo at a tavern, who asks him to join them for a drink, but he refuses. But as he proceeds further on the journey, he encounters them again, and realizes that it’s the notorious highwayman Captain Feeney. Feeney & son robs Barry of his horse and money, forcing Barry to travel by foot. A dejected Barry joins the British Army. Later, family friend Captain Grogan, who joins his regiment, informs him that Nora and Quin are married; his dueling pistol had been loaded only with tow, and Quin is not dead. The duel was staged by Nora’s family to get rid of Barry. Barry’s regiment fights in Germany in the Seven Years’ War, in which Grogan is killed. Death of his father-figure leads to Barry deserting the army; impersonating an officer, he heads for the neutral Holland, but on the way he decides to spend a few love\lust-filled days with Frau Lieschen, a young peasant widow, who is almost a mirror image of Nora; and whom Barry seduces and abandons, just as Nora did to him. But his seduction of Frau will cost him, as he runs into Prussian Captain Potzdorf, who, seeing through his disguise, offers him the choice of being handed over to the British to be shot or enlisting in the Prussian Army. Barry enlists, only to realize that life in Prussian army is worse than it was in British army. 

So, Kubrick is essentially positioning Barry as an existential character in a nihilistic and fatalistic world. Barry thinks that he can further his cause by his will and effort, but the world around him is designed to fail him at every turn. Despite picking a fight with Quin, he loses Nora; despite thwarting Feeney at the tavern, he gets robbed anyway; despite joining the army his social status hasn’t improved a bit. Here, we also see Barry’s fetish for impersonating his father\father-figures\romantic-rivals. He tries to duel himself out of a crisis, like the way his father did; he becomes a British soldier like Quin and Grogan; then becomes a Prussian soldier like Potzdorf; Barry is a man (or a man-child) obsessed with taking on the persona of others; or the absence of a father stunts him emotionally, and his idea of ‘being a man’ is masquerading as people whom he thinks are more superior and older\mature than him. Soon, we will see him (literally) disguised as Chevalier de Balibari, and escaping from Prussia. For a long time after that he will live the same life as Balibari, until he stumbles upon Lady & Lord Lyndon. Frank Middlemass appears in just two scenes as Sir Charles Lyndon, but the second scene – in which he confronts Barry about his wife’s adultery, and then dies of a heart attack – is the funniest scene in the film; in fact it’s one of the most funniest scenes I have ever seen in films; Kubrick mixing tragedy and comedy like no other to create a truly unique cinematic moment. And, in his final act of impersonation, Barry replaces Charles Lyndon, both as Lady Lyndon’s husband and the lord of Lyndon estate; and he becomes Barry Lyndon.

Now Barry has reached the zenith of his life; the next part of the film will detail his downfall. Despite Barry’s best efforts, a mere child like Lord Bullingdon sees through his masquerade. And Barry provides Bullingdon with enough evidence to substantiate his suspicions about him with his crude and caddish behavior- he’s openly infidel to his wife, taking her maids as his mistresses; he inflicts heavy punishment on Bullingdon, like the kind that was inflicted on him in the army; and he throws lavish balls and purchases paintings and other artifacts at double their prices. The second part of the film follows a reverse-narrative of the first part. If the first half saw Barry hunting for father figures, the second half finds Barry trying to be a father himself, but he fails miserably at that too. He antagonizes his stepson, while overindulging his real son, Bryan; both leading to his doom. In a mirror image of what caused the death of his father, the ‘Purchase of a horse’ leads to Bryan’s death (the death scene is the only time where the film breaks its straight narrative and flashes back). And his violent treatment of Bullingdon – his beating up of Bullingdon in the middle of a birthday ball mirroring a fistfight he had in the army – leads to the final duel between Barry and Bullingdon that seals Barry’s fate forever. The final duel, staged in a barn with fluttering pigeons, is an audio-visual tour de force that last more than ten minutes. . One could say that all the small-scale duels throughout the film was building towards this mega duel, though here, Kubrick emphasizes emotions and behavior over action. This is the ultimate oedipal battle, with Barry and Bullingdon squaring off to decide once and for all who will control Lady Lyndon (and her kingdom). The duels till now were coldly ritualistic, but this one is emotionally overheated. Here too, we see Barry trying his best to thwart the inevitable: when he has the chance, he does not kill Bullingdon and fires his pistol into the ground. He foolishly assumes that Bullingdon will be satisfied with that; he has no idea how deeply he has injured Bullingdon – who emphatically declares that “I have not received satisfaction,” and forces the duel to continue. So, Barry’s act of kindness (or could be opportunism also, there’s no way he can kill Bullingdon and continue to be Lady Lyndon’s husband) leads to his doom, as Bullingdon does not miss with his next shot, and manages to wound Barry. The final scenes of the film, a duel followed by Lord Bullingdon gently coaxing his mother to sign the annuity check for Barry, is an exact replication of the first two scenes of the film, where a duel , in which Barry’s father is killed, is followed by Barry and his mother walking away (together) from the frame. So, what’s essentially perceived to be a fathers & sons story is ultimately a mothers & sons story. The proletariat mother & son duo of Barry & Belle fighting against all odds manages to rise to the top of the social hierarchy – at one point we see that Barry’s mother is the one running the Lyndon estate. But they are ultimately defeated by the patrician mother & son duo of Bullingdon & Lady Lyndon; in other words, the class hierarchies will continue as it is. It can be safely assumed that Lord Bullingdon is a Barry Lyndon in the making (reason why he could see through Barry’s duplicity before anyone else); and the saga of Barry Lyndon will continue on through Lord Bullingdon.

“Barry Lyndon” is the most emotionally rich material Kubrick has ever committed to film, and I guess his ice-cold approach is basically to tone down the overheated sentimentalist nature of this fathers\sons, mothers\sons, husbands\wives\lovers saga. His emphasis at al times is on ‘pure cinema,’ and he refuses to manipulate the audiences in any way and wants them to connect with these characters without any prejudices. That’s why that epilogue about everyone being equal is very relevant. By composing every frame in such a way as to minimize our empathies for these characters, Kubrick challenges us to connect with these highly flawed human beings and judge them for ourselves. By rendering his actors\characters passive, he makes the audiences active participants in the narrative. It’s up to us to either find the stirring emotions in this emotion-rich tale, or just sit back and blame Kubrick for flattening out the emotions with his cold approach. And Despite portraying a very fatalistic world and an amoral hero, Kubrick sometime evens things up: there are some instances, like Barry’s rescue of Potzdorf, or Barry aligning with Balibari, that shows Barry’s existentialism allowing him to progress in life. This is a truly unique emotional family drama; only that Kubrick’s definition of an emotional drama is very different from a Douglas Sirk or David Lean or Steven Spielberg. Suffice to say that “Barry Lyndon,” that came between the low-budget, hurriedly assembled & quite over-the-top “A clockwork Orange,” and his attempt at a pure genre film with “The Shining,” truly marks the zenith of Kubrick’s career. I know that “2001” is considered by majority of Kubrick admirers as his greatest film, but for me it’s unquestionably Barry Lyndon; for the simple reason that it transforms a piece of period literature into an equally literate film, but that’s foremost a pure cinematic experience. Since, “2001” is a mostly plotless, hardware-heavy, Sci-fi film, it automatically gives itself to a cinematic treatment; Sci-fi movies are by their nature much better conveyed on screen rather than through any other art form. But a plot-heavy, dialogue heavy, novel written in mid Nineteenth century does not easily translate to screen, at least not a purely cinematic exercise. With “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick has achieved the impossible; he managed to marry literature, 18th century period-settings, classical music, sound and visuals to create the ultimate instance of pure cinema.


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