Screen Gems Barry Lyndon
Stanley Kubrick is a maker of moments. Within the movies that have elevated him among the cinematic titans are scenes that have broken free of the film canon and into the fabric of 20th-century culture. You know them all: Major “King” Kong riding the atomic bomb down to oblivion, Alex and his “droog” buddies leering at the camera in the milk bar, the river of blood cascading from the elevator in the Overlook Hotel, the apes encountering the monolith. A photographer turned filmmaker with a flair for drama, Kubrick created scenes that burned themselves into your imagination, like you had been looking into the sun and then closed your eyes. One such scene exists near the end of his 1975 film
Barry Lyndon — an initial critical and commercial underachiever that has greatly grown in stature in recent decades. In the scene, a duel with pistols takes place in a barn, which, despite the presence of hay and doves, resembles a church with its high ceilings and crosslike shafts of light. The setting and situation allow for a lot of what Kubrick specializes in: coldly symmetrical shots, close-ups of actors with emotionless stares, booming sound effects (gunshots and doves flapping their wings), along with editing and pacing that — when set to Leonard Rosenman’s arrangement of the fourth-movement Sarabande of George Frideric Handel’s Keyboard Suite in D minor — is nothing short of musical. To witness the scene is to internalize it for years to come.
Barry Lyndon begins with a duel and very nearly ends with one. The long rise and fall of Redmond Barry (later Barry Lyndon, played by Ryan O’Neal) comes down to a bullet finding its mark here, a misfire there. Barry’s journey is reflected through many images of long roads that recede into the horizon. Occasionally, an establishing shot contains a fork in the road, and Barry picks one or the other. This is not a story about how humans are blown about by the fates, with little control over the outcome of their lives. This is a morality fable, where every choice has consequences and there is virtually no element of chance. Even the outcome of the first duel is fixed.
When Kubrick made Barry Lyndon, he was coming off two science-fiction films that cemented his status as a visionary filmmaker (2001: A Space Odyssey and
A Clockwork Orange) and decided to look back rather than forward. He was struck by the characters and setting of William Thackeray’s 1844 picaresque novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and set about making the most accurate historical film he could. “[It] offered the opportunity to do one of the things that movies can do better than any other art form,” he told critic Michel Ciment in an interview, “and that is to present historical subject matter. Description is not one of the things that novels do best but it is something that movies do effortlessly.”
To achieve these aspirations, Kubrick closely followed historical paintings and even acquired actual costumes from the era. One of his primary goals was to film without the use of electric lights, including interiors lit only by candles, and to that end he famously employed lenses developed for NASA for the Apollo missions to the moon, with a massive aperture and narrow field of focus that required actors to move slowly to avoid underexposure.
For the exterior shots, Kubrick looked to landscapes by Jean-Antoine Watteau and Thomas Gainsborough. In the preindustrial era, before Impressionism upturned the visual-arts apple cart, painters such as these rendered lush, highly realistic flora, with greens and browns blurring together and darker shades so rich they almost seem to lend a three-dimensional aspect to the picture. Kubrick relished his compositions so much that he began most scenes in close-up and slowly pulled back to reveal the full ambition of his canvas. The effect is hypnotic — it is not hyperbolic to suggest that few films are as beautiful as Barry Lyndon.
Kubrick told the tale of an Irish rogue who gradually rises to fortune with an attention to detail that suggests the director used research from his obsessed-over but never realized film about Napoleon Bonaparte, and with a fascination with military formations perhaps left over from Spartacus. O’Neal’s performance seems drained of feeling and introspection — in some ways, recalling the emotionless scoundrel who is the protagonist of Robert Bresson’s
Pickpocket — but his mean-spirited ambition and unquenchable lust also calls to mind characters in modern films such as The Wolf of Wall Street.
Lyndon is impossible to root for, in part because of his heartlessness. As an interesting contrast, his rivals in the duels that bookend the film are almost comically emotional — when they speak, their lips move wildly, as if their feelings are so urgent that it’s a struggle to make them come out. In the first duel, we do root for Lyndon. By the end, we know better. In between the smoke and gunfire of those scenes is a long, grand, and ever-captivating road. — Robert Ker