On re-watching Barry Lyndon on the occasion of its 4K re-release in the year of Our Lord, 2016
An appraisal of the merits of Mr Stanley Kubrick’s considerable film essay on ambition and ruin.
It is the unenviable lot of every human being cast into this busy and brutal world that we must at once learn how to live life while at the same time living that very life we are attempting to learn how to live; and so it is perfectly possible, if not in fact probable, that the lessons that are the most important to our happiness, the invaluable realizations on how to get along in the world, on how to be content, on how to succeed, are bound to be worthless: for they come too late to be of any palpable use. It is for this reason indeed that we have modal verbs and the third conditional: I could have… should have … would have… etc., being essential adjuncts to our wistful condition. The great novelists tell us the same: Voltaire in Candide; Dickens in Great Expectations. And William Thackeray’s picaresque account of the rise and fall of an Irish rogue Barry Lyndon is a tragi-comic treatment on the same theme.
The erstwhile director of a series of remarkable moving pictures, Mr Stanley Kubrick, took on the novel following the collapse of his long planned epic on the life of Napoleon. Employing the research, he created one of the most authentic renderings of the Eighteenth Century, with characters who lived outside, exposed to the imminent weather, or huddled in candlelit rooms, poised and pinioned in their beautiful regalia. To speak of the film, one must first address its beauty. If Mr Kubrick were a painter, we would have to enquire as to where he procures his canvases, his pigments and oils, for all his films seem to be painted on a rich vellum with a wide range of nuanced colours apparently unavailable to other filmmakers. There is a peach-coloured tinge to the sky, his fires are pumpkin orange and the range of his palette – the spectrum of greens for instance – is simply breath-taking. ‘I do like the way the artist uses the colour blue,’ Barry Lyndon comments. Quite so, Mr Lyndon, quite so. Not to mention the framing – from the very first shot, which shows the duel that killed Redmond Barry’s father – the scene is composed so well, so finely structured – the diagonal run of the dry stone walling, the depth of vision – and so pleasing to the eye that the director rarely requires more than a single cut to tell his whole scene. The slow zooms are employed to reveal the world around his characters or to move in on a particular detail or individual, and later, in the second half, to reveal adultery and despair. But Mr Kubrick is varied in his means; a ruffian handheld syle suits a brawl and an almost documentary feel imbues a battle with immediacy and danger.
The story is simplicity itself. A young Irishman, Redmond Barry of Barryville (an outstanding performance from Mr Ryan O’Neal, best known for the sentimental drama Love Story), is forced to leave home after a romance with a cousin leads him to duel, he thinks fatally, with an English officer, an excellent and concise comic turn from the superb Mr Leonard Rossiter of Rising Damp fame. His journeys lead him from highway robbers to the English army, the Prussian army, a career as card player and conman and finally the successful seduction of a woman of wealth and station and the securing of his position in society. This is but part one and the second half of the film shows the other side of the hill, as Redmond Barry, now styled Barry Lyndon, is unable to hold all he has attained secure in his grasp, and through a combination of his own fecklessness and the unforgiving nature of the English upper class, his financial, social and familial standing are reduced to disaster and ultimately a sad mess of grief and tatters.
Over the years, the films of Mr Stanley Kubrick have acquired the reputation of coldness and Barry Lyndon is often posited as an example, but on rewatching the film such arguments appear wrong-headed. Barry Lyndon is a remarkably moving and humane piece of work, about a man in desperate search for love who fails to appreciate it when he finds it. A fatherless child who is to become a childless father to the sound of Sarabande, the triple timed dance that becomes a reminder that all marches are funeral marches in the end. It is a hard lesson, and like all lessons on how to live life it is learned only once life is over.
Mr John Bleasdale