Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975)

Title: Barry Lyndon (1975)

Writer/Director: Stanley Kubrick (based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel)

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Leon Vitali


In Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005), we follow Chris Wilton (played by Jonathan Rhys Myers) a character who is a scoundrel, a cheat and a liar. He is a guy who is always looking for a way to benefit from somebody else, trying to move up the proverbial “social ladder” without taking the proper steps to do so. This is to say that the main character in Allen’s film doesn’t have money, he simply moves up the ladder by charming the pants off of the right people, by becoming ‘friends’ with the high class and falling in love with them. He lies his way through the whole movie for he is not truly friends with anybody but himself. In the end, you grow to hate this selfish and self centered character because he is so false and two faced. He steals girlfriends, and then two times them. He falls for both the rich and the poor girl. He believes that in this life it is better to be lucky, then good. Yet, he is the main character in the film. I personally couldn’t take being two hours with this major asshole of a character! Yet, I did finish seeing Match Point (Scarlett Johansson’s magnetic sexiness had a lot to do with that) and the film did make an impression on me, but I don’t think it’s a film I’ll be revisiting any time soon. But that’s just my take on Match Point, you my dear reader might feel differently about it.

A very young Redmond Barry, starting out in life

I bring up Match Point because Kubrick’s often times neglected Barry Lyndon is a film that has that kind of an amoral main character in it. In this film we follow Redmond Barry, a young man who is just getting started in life. He is desperately in love with an older woman named Nora, who also happens to be his cousin. Problems in Redmond’s life begin when Captain John Quin falls for his cousin as well. Shortly after, Redmond finds himself in the middle of a good old fashion pistol duel, fighting for Nora’s affections. Redmond wins the duel, but ends up having to run away to another town to escape the authorities and thus, Redmond’s journey through life begins.

He learns early on that you can't trust just anybody 

Barry Lyndon is the kind of film that I like to call “span of life films” because they are films that follow a character through out most of their lives. They are epic in this sense. Most of these types of films follow a character from their very birth (or very young age) until their deaths (or very old age). One such film that comes to mind is Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) where we meet the main character when he is literally born on the streets of France. We then follow him as he develops into a young man and finally we get to see the tragic end of his short life. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989) sees Ron Kovic start life as a child, playing war games in the forest with his friends, we then follow him as he becomes a teenager, going to the prom and falling for his high school sweet heart. Then we follow him to war, and finally we get to see when he returns from war and confronts the grim reality of his life. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) is the same. Birth, maturity, death. In Barry Lyndon we meet Redmond Barry first when he is but a teenager, falling deeply in love for the first time, a naïve young man, not fully understanding the nature of the world he lives in. We then follow him when he ventures out into the world for the first time on his own, learning that you can’t trust anybody, learning to stand on his own two feet in this cruel world. We then see him join the military, see the horrors of war. And finally, we see him choosing his own path in life, and where those choices take him. When we finally leave Redmond, he is an old man, weary and beaten by life.

Barry joins the army in The Seven Year war!

I mentioned the main character in Match Point earlier in this review and I mentioned how despicable he is, making the film a tough watch for me. The main character in that film was simply not someone I wanted to be with for the whole duration of the film. In contrast, the main character in Barry Lyndon, Redmond Barry manages to be likable even though he is for all intents and purposes a cheat and a scoundrel. In this sense, I think the film captures the duality of the human experience perfectly. Hard as we try, none of us are as squeaky clean as we like to think we are. We are all imperfect creatures, with many flaws and grey areas. But at the same time, we are not entirely despicable are we? This is a truth about human beings: we are both equally good and bad. Redmond Barry is equal parts a charming and despiteful character. One scene that let’s us see this is when in his travels across the country; he comes upon a German peasant girl, living alone in a hut, raising a child all by herself while her husband is at war. Redmond wants to bed her, so he tells her that he is an officer in the war (a blatant lie) and that he is constantly risking his life for his country, but he is lonely. He lies to her, to be with her. He is being insincere and opportunistic. In an interview Kubrick mentions that “when we try to deceive, we are as convincing as we can be, aren’t we?” This much is true about this scene, which lets us see the duality of man. Barry isn’t necessarily a terrible person, a person could aim to be far worse then he is, but he isn’t perfect either. And I loved how the film was truthful about this aspect of human nature, without making the character be entirely unlikable. I think this is part of the reason why the film is a bit cold and detached, we are not supposed to entirely warm up to Redmond. Thackeray himself said that his novel was “a novel without a hero”

Barry's mission in life: to move on up that social ladder

When Kubrick made Barry Lyndon, he’d already made a name for himself as a director, having directed Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), so there was a lot of anticipation when he announced that he was going to make Barry Lyndon. Various events made Kubrick choose Barry Lyndon as his next project. Originally, what Kubrick wanted to do was a film on Napoleon Bonaparte, unfortunately, another film based on the life of Napoleon was made (Waterloo (1970)) and it tanked at the box office, so the studio dropped the production of Kubrick’s Napoleon film. Instead, Kubrick went and did a film that took place during the same period, and thus, Barry Lyndon was born. Kubrick was a life long fan of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novels, in fact, Kubrick also wanted to make a film based on Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but someone beat him to it by making a televised mini-series based on that novel. He dropped his idea for making Vanity Fair, but opted to go with Barry Lyndon instead. I haven’t read the novel, but from what I gather, the film is faithful to it save for a few minor changes Kubrick made to it to get to certain moments quicker. Its baffling though that the film still ended being more than three hours long!

Kubric (extreme right) directing some of his actors under the candlelight

Technically speaking, the film is a major achievement. There is great beauty in every shot, every detail. The wardrobe, the locations, the natural lighting, the performances; all amazing. It is one of Kubrick’s most beautiful looking films. The location shooting on this film was masterful, there is great beauty in the landscape and the buildings in which Kubrick chose to shoot this picture in. His decision to shoot the film entirely with natural lighting gives the images great authenticity, and those scenes that take place in candlelight are especially beautiful in my book as are many of the images in the film. Sadly, it was a film that tanked at the box office because audiences found it boring and too long, and so did many critics. Talk about Kubrick films, and chances are that many of his other films will be mentioned, while this one will be ignored. I myself had not seen this film until last week, and I fancy myself a huge Kubrick fan! I will admit that the film is not an easy watch. It is three hours long, and a deliberately slow and long film, this much is true. I’ll be honest; Barry Lyndon is not my favorite Kubrick film (or least favorite either) but it is a beautiful looking and engaging film. Once I started Redmond Barry’s journey towards becoming Barry Lyndon, I wanted to know how he would end up. It is a sad film, it is a tragic film. But it also has its beautiful happy moments. Like life, this film can be bitter sweet. And it is a film that has profound observations on life, for example, one of the films major points is, that no matter where we are in the social ladder, be we rich or poor, a ‘peasant’ or an aristocrat, in the end, when death comes calling for as all, we all end up the same way, in the end we are all equal. Speaking of the end, my final take is this: this movie may be slow, and it may be three hours long, but theres no denying its awesomeness, give yourself a chance to check out this beautiful film at some point, I dont think you'll regret it.  

Rating: 5 out of 5

Barry LyndonBarry LyndonMatch Point [Blu-ray]Perfume - The Story Of A MurdererBarry Lyndon [Blu-ray]Barry Lyndon


Jack L said...

Barry Lydon has grown to be my favourite Kubrick.
It is just so visually perfect and enchanting that I can never stop watching it, the score is also particularly beautiful.

I'm glad you mentioned the duality of the characters nature, it does make the film so much more interesting, It kind of reminded me with A Clockwork Orange, the disgust we feel at Alex during the fist half then the pity we feel during the second half, the same could said for Barry Lyndon. And indeed it has been said by many critics.

I would have loved to see a Napoleon film by Kubrick, that would have been a dream come true as they are two people I greatly admire. That film is truly one of the greatest unmade films in Cinema history.

Great review man! you do this great film justice!

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

I have been a fan of Stanley Kubrick since I saw 2001: a space odyssey in the theater in 1968 as a 10 year old. Kubrick’s technically flawless films are not always easy to watch, but most of them are worth the effort of sitting through. Unfortunately, I can’t agree with you about Barry Lyndon.

I haven’t seen this film in almost two decades, yet I still clearly recall the sick hollow feeling I had at the conclusion of the film. I prefer entertainment films, but I do think films that portray a more negative viewpoint have their place. One of my favorite films to this day is Polanski’s Chinatown, which has one of the most devastating endings I’ve seen.

What really bothered me about Barry Lyndon is that every single action that the character takes is for selfish reasons and the few times that he seems to be growing as a character, circumstances drag him right back into the mud from which he began. The very things that Redmond Barry thinks will make him happy just end up making his life more miserable. No matter how beautiful the scenery, the photography or the actors are – which does indeed show the genius of Kubrick, because the exterior beauty contrasts the ugliness of Redmond’s character – it can’t overcome the dreary pessimistic overall tone of the film.

As a film fan, I’m glad I watched it, but I would never recommend this for anyone to watch. It is not a bad film, but it is not a well-balanced film. Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut – which I also saw at the theater – received from some film critics the same sort of criticisms that Barry Lyndon gained: Too tonally pessimistic, too long and too convoluted. Still, I’d recommend it over Barry Lyndon, because despite the poor decisions that Bill Harford makes, he ends up doing the right thing and as a result his life returns to relative tranquility.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jack L: Agree about the score man, I just love the music from that time, the classical stuff is just so beautiful to listen to. Kubrick was in love with this kind of music, so on this one he went nuts! Yet, when he orchestrated the music, he had to do some rearranges to the music, so it would be more cinematic and dramatic, he himself said that the music of that time wasnt too dramatic or didnt lend itself too well for dramatic purposes.

I was going to mention something about the similarities with A Clockwork Orange in the review, but forgot to do so, but yeah, I totally agree, there is a similarity there in themes. They are both unreliable protagonists.

I guess you could check out Waterloo. I've never seen it, but its the film that put Kubrick off from doing his own Napoleon film, he never liked to do films about themes that other directors were doing at the same time. He was upset at one time that when he did Full Metal Jacket, similar films had already been released on similar subject matter and been successful as well, the films were Platoon and Hamburger Hill.

Thanks for commenting Jack!

@Fritz: Hey Fritz, 2001 is my favorite Kubrick film, agree, it is technically flawless and a true experience. When people say they find it boring, I just cant understand how they think that! To me the film is hypnotizing from beginning to end!

I know what you mean about the sick hollow feeling you felt after seeing Barry Lyndon. They character seems to go deeper and deeper into negative territory as the film progresses.

Agree, that every action he takes makes things worse for him, but maybe that was the whole point of the film, to show the importance of choices in our lives. The film is cold and detached, and Im certain that was done purposely, I dont think this is the kind of film were we're supposed to warm up to the main character, instead we're supposed to despise him.

But I guess Barry turning 'evil' might be a result of the world he lives in. First time out in the world and he gets mugged by a couple of thieves, then he sees the emptiness of war...I guess him looking out for #1 (himself) was a natural progression of things. Sometimes movies can glamorize life, and have every character have happy positive outcomes, Kubrick didnt want that with this film. With this film he wanted to show a negative yet truthful side of human nature.

Eyes Wide Shut was Kubricks personal favorite film, and I recently re-watched it and loved it even more then ever (check out my review for it) but I agree, its a more enjoyable film to watch. I guess going into Barry Lyndon, its better to know that you'll be watching a film where the main character is a selfish scoundrel.

Thanks for the insightful comments!

Jack L said...

I've actually seen Waterloo, it's not very good...
Such a shame that the failure of a mediocre film would stop a similar but infinity better film being made.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Kubrick's most beautiful film without a doubt. One gorgeous painterly composition follows another. I've always had a problem with the performances in this film. In my view Michael Horden's brilliant narration is the acting highlight.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jack: It happened to Kubrick once again, he was also going to make a film about the holocaust, but Spielberg beat him to it with Saving Private Ryan, and once again he backed out. This explains why he took so long between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, he was prepping his holocaust movie when Spielberg beat him to the punch. This happened to him often because he always took a really long time for pre-production to his films.

@Shaun: Yeah, and what about that narration! Some people are of the mind that voice overs are no good in films, but I think Kubrick made good use of it, he tells details that we dont know from just watching the film with the narration. Kubrick said that this was not a film about surprises, and that this is the reason why the narration sort of prepares us for whats to come. I got the feeling that the person narrating the film was an old Redmond Barry telling us his tail, but I dont think thats what Kubrick intended, still that was the feeling I got from it.

I hear the novel ended in a far worse matter. That Redmond ends up going to jail, and rotting there till the end of his days.

Jack L said...

Yeah you're right...
You know I would really recommend the documantary about Kubrick and his work, it's called Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, definitely worth seeing. It explains all these details very well.

Neil Fulwood said...

Hi, Franco. Apologies for the lack of comments on your posts recently - work on my novel has kept me busy recently.

'Barry Lyndon' was a film I had difficulty appreciating to begin with, but it's grown on me over the years. Visually, it's astounding. Fritz in his comment makes a powerful point about the title character, and I remember reading somewhere that Kubrick cast Ryan O'Neal purely for his vapidity.

(On an unrelated note, I love your 'Wings of Desire' banner.)

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Francisco, i actually think "Barry Lyndon" is the greatest film ever made (with Klimov's "Come And See" {1985} a close second) although i would never recommend anyone to watch it (rather ironic, i think you`ll agree). Every frame of the film is like a beautiful painting that you might see in any of the famous art gallerys around the world, but unfortunately thats the only thing about the film that is pure genius, in every other way its pure crap, probably because Kubrick (unfortunately) chose to make the film in England (puke ! ! !) as he did with with every film from "Lolita" onwards, just imagine how much better every other aspect of the film would`ve been if Kubrick had made the film in America with ALL repeat ALL American actors and actresses playing All the roles instead of the British scumbags that he did employ ! ! !. All of Kubricks later films would have been so much better if they`d been made in America. Coming to Britain to make movies was the worst decision Kubrick ever made. I will however concede that Horden`s narration is majestic, i just wish it`d been an American actor doing a British accent instead. By the way, i still stand by what i said about "Barry Lyndon" being the greatest film ever made but once again its only because of the astounding images and photograhy, bloody British rubbish they always spoil everything.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jack L: I'll be checking that documentary out soon, I've been meaning to watch it for sometime now! Thanks for the recommendation.

@Neil: Hey man, I understand man! I'm currently working on two scripts, and I making time for that and editing a film Im working on is proving to be quite a task! Makes me wish I didnt have to work 9-5, I could accomplish so much more! But, a mans gotta do what a mans gotta do to survive!

I have a feeling that Barry Lyndon is going to grow on me as time goes by, I enjoyed it whole heartedly, and Im sure my enjoyment of it will grow with time, but again, its one of those films thats not easy to digest or absorb, but that sometimes happens with the best works of art! Thanks for taking the time out to comment Neil, glad you liked the banner!

@Jervais: I appreciate your comments on Barry Lyndon Jervais, but I dont appreciate you bashing on other nationalities, as I mentioned before on previous posts, I would appreciate it if you kept your hateful comments towards the British to yourself, just out of respect for my readers and British people everywhere. Warning: if you keep bringing this kind of comments up, Im going to have no choice but to delete your comments whenever you post them. I would hate to resort to that, so lets keep things friendly, yes? Thanks again.

Nathanael Hood said...

Oh, how I love this film!

It single-handedly sparked my love for Kubrick!

I usually detest European period films, but I was blown away by Barry Lyndon.

By the way, hi! I'm Nathanael Hood from Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear, a fellow CMBA member! I'd love to know what you think of my site!

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for commenting Nathanael, I'll make sure and check out your site.

Spencer said...

Google Schopenhaur Being and Time and Barry Lyndon. It's a philosophically heavy film by Kubrick.


Related Posts with Thumbnails