WolfmanOz at the Movies #69

Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now

Based on the 1844 novel The Luck Of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon (released in 1975) recounts the exploits and later unravelling of an 18th-century Irish rogue and social climber who marries a beautiful rich widow to assume her late husband’s aristocratic position.

Now regulars here would gather I am huge fan of Stanley Kubrick – IMO he’s one of the very few genuine artistic geniuses of cinema, but I will be the first to admit that Barry Lyndon is not for everyone given its deliberate slow-pacing but for those prepared to immerse themselves into the film and it’s setting it’s an unforgettably rewarding experience.

In terms of story this is on the surface at least, the simplest thing Kubrick ever made. However in terms of its’ technical aspect, it was one of his most challenging. The plot is basically about how greed, arrogance and ignorance can easily become the ruin of a man. The story itself is superbly told, but mostly quite straight forward. The humour keeps us interested in the story, as does its undeniable visual beauty. It is not a stretch to say that this must be among the most beautiful looking films ever made. Every scene is filmed in all natural light, whether it be by sun or fire, and the landscapes and architecture handpicked by Kubrick himself are amazing. As in all Kubrick films, so much attention to small details equates to a great result in the end. Steven Spielberg called this film “possibly the most beautifully shot film in history.”.

In terms of the film’s technical achievement, it is a landmark movie. Even for all the story’s simplicity, there is a startling statement in the film that certainly can give the viewer real pause and thought. The finality of this world, the equality of all things in the end. It is certainly an interesting, powerful and very humbling down to earth observation. It is the kind of worldly observation that could perhaps lead some people to ruin, and yet lead others to strive for perfection. Perhaps that is part of Kubrick’s thinking here, a Kubrickian challenge if you will, as he certainly was always an artist that was challenging his viewers.

The beauty, the depth, and the mystery of this film are unsurpassable – what Kubrick was doing with light is just a miracle. Special lenses were designed to shoot interiors and exteriors in natural light; and no scene better encapsulates this where at the gambling table Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) and Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) stare at each other in the candlelight. The beauty of the cinematography, the music (Schubert’s Piano Trio 2nd movement), the costumes, the furtive looks of the characters and the humorous narration at the end which punctuates it makes it one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history and one of my all-time favourites.

Scene after scene is perfection and harmony. Costumes and sets were crafted in the era’s design, where the Age of Enlightenment with its gallantry, wars, and duels, was recreated in the film with the precision of the celebrated landscape and portrait masters of the period such as Thomas Gainsborough; Sir Joshua Reynolds; George Romney to name just a few. If nothing else, watching Barry Lyndon is an aesthetic delight in its purest form.

I feel sure (without having read Thackeray), that this was the proper way to adapt a long story from novel to screen. Each scene is either allowed as much time as it needs to make its point and its impact, or it’s cut altogether – you won’t catch Kubrick skating too quickly over his material for no better reason than to fit it all in. The third-person narration (consisting of witty, beautifully crafted sentences superbly spoken by Michael Hordern) almost performs a kind of dance with the images, gliding in just when we need it, taking a step back when we don’t (so rarely is a third-person narration used so well).

Barry Lyndon is the most compelling and compassionate realisation of the inevitable finality of everything in this world which was presented by the visionary director with elegant sensual melancholy. Stanley Kubrick known for his detached, seemingly remote and non-sentimental style chose to reach out to his viewer directly during the epilogue, “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personalities lived and quarreled, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now”. I don’t recall any other movie that would illustrate the old wisdom, “everything will pass” in such sublime and deeply moving way.

For me Barry Lyndon is one of the great films of cinema – it’s in my top 20 favourite films of all-time; and it’s the first of 3 great films from 1975 I will be reviewing in the coming weeks.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . A Tale of the Christ.