wed 06/07/2022

Barry Lyndon | reviews, news & interviews

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon

Back in cinemas: Stanley Kubrick's lush but soulless rendering of a rake's progress

Cold comfort: newly-weds Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) and the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson)Warner Bros.

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), which has been re-released, is one of the most stately costume dramas films ever made. It is also a monument to tedium, a tale told so deliberately, ponderously, and humorlessly that it raises the question, as do Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, of whether their maker was a genuine master or is a sacred cow. 

In his adaptation of William Thackeray’s 1844 The Luck of Barry Lyndon especially, Kubrick’s meticulously achieved “realism” (which avoids the squalour of the poor), lugubrious grandeur, glacial pacing, and bleak irony has seemingly persuaded a number of his famous peers and numerous critics that his cinema is synonymous with virtuosity. It is a matter of taste: in the director's icy, technocratic movies I see not an ounce of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s passionate Romanticism and none of John Boorman’s magical lyricism or Nicolas Roeg’s metaphysical strangeness – and they are less laboured, more poetic stylists than he is.  

He is a swine, but the cracks in his dourness admit some humanity

Kubrick studiedly chronicles the picaresque journey of Irish chancer Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) as a British soldier of the 1756-63 Seven Years War, deserter, turncoat hero of the Prussian army, gambler, adulterous husband, devoted father, aspiring aristocrat, and symbolically emasculated wanderer, his travels taking him to Germany, Holland, Belgium, England, and back to the continent around 1789. The film is gorgeously appointed and offers many painterly vistas and static or semi-static dioramas – direct homages to the works of, among others, Hogarth, Watteau, Gainsborough, Stubbs, Constable, Reynolds, Fuseli, Zoffany, and de la Tour and Schalcken, the latter pair inspiring Kubrick's exquisite candlelit interiors. (Pictured below: Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon with Murray Melvin as her friend Reverend Runt.) 

John Alcott, who had worked on 2001, lit A Clockwork Orange, and would photograph The Shining, created for Barry Lyndon a gallery of elaborate images that earned him the Oscar for Best Cinematography. But Kubrick’s rampant pictorialism is not satisfying in itself. Whereas the tableaux that are part of the organic fabric of Terence Davies' films vibrate with emotion, Kubrick’s are strangely denatured. For example, a medium shot (bottom picture) of the young Redmond jealously confronting the coquettish cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) he loves and her English officer suitor (Leonard Rossiter) seems designed to impress rather than make us empathise with him as a victim of colonialism burdened with an inferiority complex – the crucial factor in his turning from a sexual naïf into a predator and bully.

His failure to take what Nora offered him earlier when she placed one of his hands in her décolletage – another calculated composition – was a tragic mistake. He eventually seduces the languid, melancholy Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) shortly before the demise of her diseased husband (Frank Middlemass) and, renaming himself Barry Lyndon after he marries her, unleashes his suppressed Irish rage on his stepson (played at different ages by Dominic Savage and Leon Vitali) by beating him.

Unlike the frisky hero of Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s infectious allegory of incipient mid-1960s hedonism via Henry Fielding, Redmond is a late bloomer devoid of earthy vitality. O'Neal's days as Peyton Place’s Rodney Harrington were six years gone and he was 34 by the time the film opened; Redmond is a mere 15 when he falls in love with Nora in Thackeray’s novel. Not only was O’Neal much too old for the part, but his largely inscrutable performance prevented audience identification with Redmond.

It isn’t a bad performance: when Redmond meets an old chevalier (Patrick Magee) he has been asked to spy on by a Prussian officer friend (Hardy Krüger), he is so moved by the splendid figure cut by his fellow Irishman that he is overcome. When his and Honoria’s beloved small son is badly hurt in a riding accident – the fate suffered by Rhett and Scarlett’s daughter in Gone With the Wind – he is stricken with dread. He is a swine, but the cracks in his dourness admit some humanity. Kubrick must have insisted on restraint (pre-revolutionary cynicism is also in the air) but Berenson’s Honoria never surpasses sadness. Rossiter, Magee, Middlemass, and Vitali each revitalises the rake’s progress when it becomes flaccid. 

The voice-over commentary by Michael Hordern (which replaced the novel’s unreliable first-person narration by the bragging Redmond) hovers between deadpan and mordant: one can “see” Hordern’s frowns, grimaces, and squintings. Yet it isn’t enough, given the dullness of Kubrick’s storytelling, to make the moral fable resonate. 

Demons rent the souls of 18th-century sinners and innocents much more affectingly in Dennis Potter’s Casanova, The Draughtsman’s Contract, Amadeus, Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, Quills, and The Duchess. Barry’s predictable come-uppance doesn’t disturb the viewer’s equanimity, but it’s true the views (even those of carnage) are beautiful.

The film is gorgeously appointed and offers many painterly vistas and static or semi-static dioramas


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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