A few tweaks here and there, and these guys could be a force to be reckoned with.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s most famous novel, Vanity Fair, has been adapted into several films and TV series. The Luck of Barry Lyndon, later retitled The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., hasn’t been quite so regurgitated. Originally serialised in the 1840s before becoming a single volume in 1856 (although set in the previous century) it’s a rambling text, described by a disinterested narrator, full of satirical swipes at the seventeenth century romantic ideal.
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation – a bit of a flop in 1975 – dials down the satire. With Dr Strangelove, Kubrick had taken a cold and sober story (Red Alert) and turned it into a nightmare satirical comedy. With Lyndon he takes a rambunctious and ironic picaresque and turns it into a witty but ultimately sorrowful journey into the black heart of a world that can’t accept the orphan foreigner.
We begin in Ireland, where a young Redmond Barry (a blank slate Ryan O’Neal), in trying to win the heart of his cousin, challenges the smug Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) to a duel. The event triggers Redmond’s exile, and he hits the road, not so much gallivanting around Europe as finding himself stumbling in and out of army units and from one bereft wife’s bed to the next.
Redmond has ambitions to wealth and status. So, when he comes into contact with Lady Lyndon (an even blanker slate Marisa Berenson), he decides to settle down and take advantage of her money and make himself a gentleman. Lyndon, however, is guarded by her fiercely protective son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), who will defend her honour until the violent end.
Barry Lyndon employs a realist aesthetic, but it’s a beautified and exaggerated realism, like a photo album telling half the story – the pretty bits – as if we were observing the fantasy of an ordered universe. The style is perfect for the self-aggrandising nature of Redmond, who would rather keep himself unknowable in detail, but would gleefully embellish his grander legend.
Kubrick predominantly makes use of zooms, as opposed to tracking shots, evoking a sense of flatness similar to a painting. The compositions themselves are reminiscent of 17th and 18th century pieces – at one point Lord Bullingdon effectively walks through Hogarth’s “The Morning After”. When the camera does come off the tripod – for example, during an astonishing brawl at a concert performance – the effect is brilliantly jarring.
For a film that keeps its title character in frame but at arm’s length for virtually its entire 180-minute running time (save for a brief interlude of contented fatherhood), Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s most moving and heartfelt film. Kubrick used cinema for awe (2001: A Space Odyssey) and anarchy (A Clockwork Orange); but he knew also that cinema is sadness: twenty-four transient events slipping away every second.
The sombre rhythm of Barry Lyndon, and the lifetime it covers, is such that we are vitally aware of the passing of time. It is an exercise in anti-tension, with minimal editing and zero revelation. Michael Hordern’s ironic narrator frequently informs us of important events before they occur.
Kubrick was a proponent of the Soviet Montage school of editing: creating meaning through the juxtaposition of images. And yet with Barry Lyndon the meaning is created more by the events within the frame: the stillness, smallness and slowness of people in vast, beautiful, indifferent spaces.
Barry Lyndon may lack the broad humour of the more accessible Dr Strangelove, but Kubrick’s acknowledgement of the absurd is still present. Marriage, monogamy, material consumption, and the endless pursuit of money: the sometimes conflicted aspects of the independence-seeking society that sprung from the one we’re watching on screen. It’s a reflection of our world, today.
Yes, Barry Lyndon is a historical film, and it’s about history, but it’s also about who we are now. It is a film that questions our values and our social convictions. We may laugh or cry at the picaresque rogue and the rigid class divisions he crosses. We may sneer at the loveless marriage born of loneliness at the story’s centre. We may despair at the movement from the expansive freedom of the rolling landscape to the closed world of the gated estate. But we may also consider that, unlike Redmond Barry, we have the awareness and the means and the mobility to resist such a fate. Yet so often we choose not to.