Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Written By: Stanley Kubrick (based on the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray)
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee
Barry Lyndon is one of the most wholly interesting films ever made. There’s something enigmatic in the marrow of Stanley Kubrick’s epic picaresque, something otherworldly. It’s certainly ceaseless entertainment. It lasts three hours and could have gone another two. It’s constantly in motion and each shot is defined by a staggering beauty and unique artistry. It’s effortlessly captivating, but there’s an irony to how interesting the film is, and that is the film itself is completely disinterested in its own characters. Specifically, it’s disinterested in them as beings that feel. At times they seem to only exist as plot vehicles. But this isn’t a criticism of a lack of empathy, in fact a story without empathy may be exactly the point.
Kubrick’s sprawling marathon seldom lets us settle on any feeling. It insists on carrying on without a pause for thought, as though emotional attachment is just extra baggage that would slow us down en route to a delivery. The story of the eponymous grand swindler is narrated to us in a light tone which gives no weight to the happenings on screen, the voice of Michael Horden rather seems more concerned with being direct and informative. The sound is hectic; Kubrick seldom leaves the non-diegetic soundscape untouched, the busy humming of strings working tirelessly to fight against stillness. Most peculiar of all is that playful undercurrent injected into the action, insurance against any dramatic lingering. There’s a slight ridiculousness to it all, the over the top cosmetics of the noblemen with their flushed cheeks and ghostly faces, grown Lords being spanked, the unfazed approach to human tragedy, there’s something fantastically offbeat to Kubrick’s marvellous adventure.
Ryan O’Neal is forced to run the gauntlet in his performance as Barry. Over the course of the three hours he must emote passion, anger, stoicism, loyalty, cunning, deceitfulness, vulnerability and love, and he does a good job of all.
To be specific, the story of Barry is broken into two parts, his rise and his fall. We learn Barry comes from humble origins, his lawman father, who was on course to become a man of status, killed in a duel, blockading any hopeful glimmers of prosperity. The first steps in Barry’s journey however come in the name of love. He outduels a cowardly captain early himself, refusing to yield in his affections, and consequentially must flee into exile. Episodically, Barry becomes engulfed in the Seven Years War, as an Irishman and a Prussian. He becomes an undercover agent, and a double agent, and a companion grifter to the crafty and resourceful chevalier (Patrick Magee).
When he’s forced to abandon his romantic hopes early, Barry in place imagines himself a wealthy man, a man of status. In his travels this is what hangs in his mind, his ticket into this life realised in the opulent and beautiful Lady Lyndon.
Barry could have been sympathetic, but his motives are swiftly poisoned and his rise is dictated by equal parts luck and trickery. But Kubrick doesn’t care to either sympathise or overtly vilify. Instead he treats Barry disaffectedly. Rather than pay him any credence the director opts to face his back to Barry, like a sibling using the silent treatment. This is all by design, Kubrick studies his subject like a calculator working out a sum, looking at his humanity or lack thereof with a stately yet robotic removal. It all seems of little consequence, as only to provide entertainment.
Crucially Kubrick only permits us two moments of feeling. Both are tragic moments for Barry, both regard the loss of life and are irrespective of money or status. This is Kubrick’s greatest commentary. He reserves his tenderness for Barry’s lone passages of empathy. These exclusive moments of sincerity are the only moments the director sees fit to emotionally elevate.
Kubrick’s 18th century arena could hardly be less fitting of such a disaffected analysis. The silky photography, the telling costumes, the lavish and fastidious production design would all go on to win Oscars. As a display of artistic craftsmanship, Barry Lyndon is legendary. John Alcott’s photography is the crown jewel of the film’s majesty, each shot transformed into a Gainsborough work; beautiful, vast landscapes which must have been first created on canvas with oil paints. It’s a transporting production, one which seals our fixation on Barry’s story.
But the production aside, to say the trials of Barry Lyndon feel of little consequence is not an observation of carelessness, rather it’s Kubrick’s most valuable tool. Without rubbing our noses in the tastelessness of this existence, Kubrick has highlighted how hollow it is whilst never forfeiting entertainment. It’s a mesmerising film, and a quietly powerful one, a beautiful and intelligent study of humankind’s vanity and vacuity in a life founded on fortune rather than emotion.