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