Monthly Film Bulletin - Jan 76- Vol 43 no 504 - by Richard Combs
Great Britain. 1975
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cert-A. dist-Columbia-Warner. p.c-Hawk Films/Peregrine. For Warner Bros. exec. p-Jan Harlan. p-Stanley Kubrick. assoc. p- Bernard Williams. p. managers-Douglas Twiddy, Terence Clegg, (Germany) Rudolf Hertzog. asst. d-Brian Cook, David Tomblin, Michael Stevenson. sc-Stanley Kubrick. Based on the novel The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray. ph-John Alcott. col-Eastman Colour. 2nd Unit ph Paddy Carey. ed-Tony Lawson. p. designer-Ken Adam. ad-Roy Walker, (Germany) Jan Schlubach. set dec-Vernon Dixon. m-"Piano Trio in F-flat" by Franz Schubert, performed by Ralph Holmes (violin), Moray Welsh (cello), Anthony Goldstone (piano); "Cello Concerto in E Minor" by Antonio Vivaldi, performed by Pierre Fournier (cello); excerpts from the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederick the Great, Georg Friedrich Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giovanni Paisiello, Franz Schubert, Antonio Vivaldi. m. adapt /m.d-Leonard Rosenman. Irish traditional m- The Chieftains. cost-Ulla Britt Soderlund, Milena Canonero. hairstyles and wigs-Leonard. make-up-Ann Brodie, Alan Boyle, Barbara Daly, Jill Carpenter, Yvonne Coppard. choreo-Geraldine Stephenson. sd. ed- Rodney Holland. sd. rec-Robin Gregory. sd. re-rec-BilI Rowe. historical adviser-John Mollo. gambling adviser-David Berglas. stunt arranger-Roy Scammell. fencing coach-Bob Anderson. horsemaster- George Mossman. wrangler-Peter Munt. armourer-Bill Aylmore. narrator-Michael Hordern. l.p-Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon [Redmond Barry]), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Patrick Magee (Chevalier de Balibari), Hardy Kruger (Captain Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), Diana Koerner (German Girl), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Andre Morell (Lord Wendover), Arthur O'Sullivan (Highwayman), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Leonard Rossiter (Captain Quin), Philip Stone (Graham), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), John Bindon, Roger Booth, Billy Boyle, Jonathan Cecil, Peter Cellier, Geoffrey Chater, Anthony Dawes, Patrick Dawson, Bernard Hepton, Anthony Herrick, Barry Jackson, Wolf Kahler, Patrick Laffan, Hans Meyer, Ferdy Mayne, David Morley, Liam Redmond, Pat Roach, Frederick Schiller, George Sewell, Anthony Sharp, John Sharp, Roy Spencer, John Sullivan, Harry Towb. 16,869 ft. 187 mins.
Ireland in the eighteenth century. When her husband is killed in a duel, it becomes Mrs. Barry's full-time study to turn her son Redmond into a gentleman. Smitten by his cousin Nora Brady, young Barry cuts short his education when he objects to the attentions paid to Nora by an English officer, Captain Quin, and apparently kills the man in a duel. Escaping arrest, Barry is robbed by highwaymen and consequently forced to enlist in the army. His first taste of combat in the Seven Years' War is disillusioning, as is his meeting with an old friend, Captain Grogan, who tells him that Quin is alive (Barry's gun was only loaded with tow, since Nora's brothers were unwilling to see her lose Quin as a suitor) and now Nora's husband. Barry soon after deserts, though when one of England's Prussian allies, Captain Potzdorf, sees through his disguise, he is forced to enlist in the Prussian army. Subsequently advanced by Potzdorf, Barry is sent to spy on a visiting diplomat, the Irish Chevalier de Balibari, suspected of being a spy. Breaking down before his fellow countryman, Barry confesses his mission; the Chevalier takes him in as a protege, and they eventually escape Prussia to make a profitable career as gamblers. The wealthy English countess, Lady Lyndon, catches Barry's mercenary eye and, in 1773, after the death of her husband Sir Charles, he marries her and takes her name. Subsequently ignoring her and flaunting his frequent amours, Barry incurs the enmity of her son, Lord Bullingdon; a public brawl between the two ends Barry's chances of a peerage (to obtain which he has plundered the Lyndon estate), and after the death of his own son Bryan, Barry slips further into dis-solution. When the distraught Lady Lyndon attempts suicide, Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel, seriously wounds him and later pays him to leave England forever.
The essential, and quite characteristic, irony of Barry Lyndon is that one of Kubrick's most personal and complex films should also look one of his most blankly remote and unapproachable. Stretching Thackeray's picaresque canvas into a net wide enough to entrap a significant cross-section of eighteenth-century life and culture - with the surfaces of the film constantly freezing into references to Gainsborough, Constable, Hogarth, Zoffany, et al. - he seems to be serving up the drama with a cold abstraction and pedantic pictorialism. But this strange and newly static style, which runs more to carefully moulded tableaux than to elaborate tracking compositions, with the most significant camera movement a simple zoom back from a particular detail to a perspective that encloses yet another ritual in the various inductions of the hero, operates in fact like an acid solution into which Thackeray's fable is dunked. What survives is the narrative and thematic kernel of the privateer's progress, the image of a world seen turning and evolving through the rise and fall of this adventurer-gambler - and, of course, vice versa, since in that immediately reversible perspective that is also distinctly Kubrick's, the whole cultural and historical scene is but an image of, and a way of involving the audience in, the life of his evolutionary hero. What has been stripped away is both the greater part of Barry Lyndon's exploits and the authorial irony with which this would-be gentleman adventurer is allowed to reveal himself, through first-person narration, as the blackest kind of rogue; irony still exists, but it is now the province of an impersonal narrator, whose comments on the vainglories of love, war and politics mockingly invoke, and lock firmly out of the scrabbling reach of mankind, concepts of gentlemanly honour, nobility and justice. Since the story-telling functions have also largely been consigned to this commentator - in the sense that we are told about many more of Barry's adventures, and the way his character is shaped by them, than we ever actually see-the effect (at least in the first part) is to render Barry the passive recipient of both his morality and his history. The narration thus serves much the same purpose as all the baroque architecture of halls and palaces-figures are seen to rattle around helplessly within it. And Kubrick's visual grandiloquence interlocks with the century's romantic cruelty as tightly as it did with the savage militarism of Paths of Glory: the liberal-humanitarian Colonel Dax could at least argue before the latter court; the romantic idealist Barry Lyndon is at first the former's passive victim and then its active representative. The presence of Ryan O'Neal is thus not a perverse casting against type, but essential to the way Kubrick has revised the character of Thackeray's swashbuckling braggart; Barry begins his journey as a helpless innocent, fumbling through his first experiences of love and battle in a sentimental education that is also a kind of processing. The odd disconnection between the 'disreputable' Barry we are constantly being told about (rewarded for his bravery in the Prussian army, he is simultaneously berated as a miscreant and a bad influence), and the misty-eyed, painfully unformed misfit we see, attests to both the success and the failure of that processing. Thrust into 'bad company' as a soldier, he fittingly becomes a plunderer and a freebooter. But his essential lack of place in the world is the crux of the tragedy which Kubrick has articulated as a two-part rise and fall: the death of Barry's father in a duel, in the very first shot of the film, effectively destroys the context of his existence-and the possibility of his achieving the spiritual and material plateau of 'gentleman'. Thereafter, through his arduous climb to wealth and position, he approximates varieties of rebirth with a succession of father figures and patrons; money is the most consistent currency between them and, at the end of this sequence, Barry is envisaged not as Thackeray's triumphant spoiler but as a spectral accumulation of all his transactions. In the second half, by cruel paradox a father himself, he fails to hold his children or his money, and this second destruction is marked, first by the extravagant and otherwise uncharacteristic emoting of his own son's death-bed scene, and then by the brilliantly staged-elaborately ritualised and physically messy-final duel, in which he is crippled by his stepson. An outcast from the natural order in the first chapter, in the second he can only enter it by violating it; and the narration soon becomes the voice of an inevitable doom by blithely anticipating the unhappy outcome of all his enterprises. With the mutilated Barry despatched forever from England, and the Lyndon family regrouped once more, the last scene dwells at length on the signing of the final pay-off that is now all that remains of the unlucky interloper. Finally, for all the detached, meditative quality of its historiography and scene-painting, Barry Lyndon emerges as perhaps Kubrick's most intensely human spectacle, comparable to Paths of Glory in its tragic confrontations that seem to throw whole worlds into the balance with individual lives, and far from the too neatly closed circuits of personal anarchy and social repression in Clock work Orange.
Copyright - The British Film Institute