#2 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
Dehumanization is a theme that pops up with some regularity in Stanley Kubrick’s films. From the sacrificial lambs in Paths of Glory to the robotic people of 2001 to the violent criminal robbed of his very choice of behavior in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s films are populated with people struggling to find their humanity within the confines of systems that wish to weed out that spark of life. The setting of Barry Lyndon both lends itself towards this idea while feeling slightly incongruous at the same time.
If I had to boil down the ideas of this 3-hour visually sumptuous experience to a single word it would be artifice, and it’s highlighted by the very first shot of the film. Like many across the runtime, this first look at the world of Redmond Barry feels like an 18th century painting come to life. Kubrick starts with two figures filling opposite sides of the frame before he zooms the camera out to reveal a stone wall that occupies much of the lower third of the frame, a large tree that fills the left half, and a blue and cloudy sky occupying the upper third. It’s so elegantly composed as to feel like it comes from another era, and it’s showing the audience a duel. It’s the duel between our main character’s father and another man, leading very quickly to the elder Barry’s death over, as the wonderfully realized and written voiceover explains, a matter concerning a horse. We learn no more about either Redmond’s father or the matter that took his life, but the execution of the elder Barry’s single scene is illuminating to the heart of the film as a whole.
What we have is a highly ritualized form of violence being followed over concerns of something rather petty when compared to the life of a man. No matter the cause, the elder Barry consented to this ritual in order to do something positive for himself. Was it worth it? Was it any different from any other form of violence like a drunken brawl? Once caught in the ritual, did the elder Barry ever have a choice in the matter, or must the form be followed no matter what?
There are two more duels in the film, and they highlight this question in ever more interesting ways. Jumping ahead a couple of decades, the film follows the younger Barry, Redmond, as he falls in love with his cousin Nora. Nora childishly plays along with this infatuation until she makes the acquaintance of a British officer named John Quin (almost ridiculously acted in a wonderful performance from Leonard Rossiter) whom she immediately falls in love with. Barry won’t stand for this insult to his honor, so, after Nora and Quin announce their engagement in a manner Quin intends to insult Barry, the young Irishman challenges Quin to a duel.
Quin, though, is an abject coward. It’s obvious that he’s the kind of man who can stand up to a boy without fear, but as soon as that boy is holding a loaded pistol, his firm looks quiver into fear. However, Quin is as much a part of the system of 18th century British society as Barry’s father had been, so he follows through with being part of the duel. He cheats, though. He has Nora’s brothers (who oversee the duel and have a vested interest in getting their sister to marry a member of the English gentry) load the guns with tow. Barry hits Quin square and Quin passes out from the shock and fear that had gripped him, despite knowing that his life was not in actual danger. Barry, not knowing Quin’s health was unaffected by his shot, flees to Dublin, leaving his old life behind.
The third duel comes much, much later in the film, so we’ll get to it in due time. Redmond is robbed on his way to Dublin and ends up joining the army in an effort to make a living and start on his path towards becoming a gentleman, a journey that takes up the first half of the film. He’s roped into the Seven Year’s War (or, for us Americans, the French and Indian War as the American theater of that conflict is called) and quickly becomes miserable with his existence. There’s a fight with another soldier, a boxing match, that acts as a very interesting counterpoint to the duels in the rest of the film. The duels are filmed very squarely with long takes, but this boxing match is all handheld cameras and quick cuts, implying the more grounded and “real” nature of the type of conflict. Anyway, Redmond steals an officer’s uniform to flee, heads into Prussian territory, and gets captured by a Prussian officer who sees through Redmond’s lies and shanghaies him into the Prussian army where Redmond spends the rest of the war. Afterwards, he’s forced to investigate an Irishman living in Prussia. Redmond and the Chevalier develop a close bond very quickly based on their shared heritage and distance from home, eventually finding a way to get Redmond out of the country and free from Prussian rule.
Once the two begin making their living as traveling gamblers, Redmond sees the Countess Lyndon and falls in love with her, a type of love that is greatly different than what he felt for Nora. His time in the British and Prussian armies has left him completely jaded, perhaps even dehumanized, so all he sees in her is an income. They marry and their lives, based on nothing more than Redmond’s quest for the status of a gentleman, is deeply unhappy. The Countess’ son to her first husband, Lord Bullingdon, instantly dislikes Redmond, seeing right through the artifice of his appearance and manner to discover the rake he truly is. After some years, and the birth of a son, Lord Bullingdon can’t take Redmond’s profligacy, infidelity to his mother, and general mistreatment of himself and leaves only to return after the accidental death of his younger brother and the utter collapse of the Lyndon fortune at Barry’s hands.
And…we finally get our third duel. This one is an interesting third manifestation of the ritual. Redmond seems to harbor no further ill will towards Lord Bullingdon in the wake of his own child’s death, but Lord Bullingdon is still consumed by hatred for Redmond. In his excitable state, Lord Bullingdon, who had been granted first shot, accidentally fires his pistol into the ground. Redmond, feeling none of the animosity towards Lord Bullingdon that the younger man feels for him, fires into the ground intentionally. Presented with an opportunity to walk away with his honor intact and satisfaction satisfied, having followed the ritual and artifice of violence to a natural conclusion, Bullingdon rejects the offer and elects to fire again. This time he doesn’t miss, hitting Redmond in the leg (which he will eventually lose), and gaining what he really wanted, exiling Redmond from England and his life. Bullingdon submitted to the artifice to get the violent ends he wanted and he took it as far as he could. The artifice in this instance did nothing to protect anyone, and Bullingdon used it to get a very non-artificial result.
The artifice of the film extends to other elements, such as performance. The characters most invested in the artifice of the world give the least naturalistic performances. In particular I think of Murray Melvin as Reverend Runt. Runt is the spiritual advisor to the Lyndon family and tutor to Lord Bullingdon. He wears the white powder on his face that marks most of the aristocracy we see in the film, and he speaks in extremely measured tones. His place in the world hinges entirely on him fitting in with the upper classes, so he’s happy to strengthen their hold upon the world no matter what. When presiding over Barry’s wedding to the Countess or reading over Redmond’s dead child, he speaks in the exact same tone of voice. It is only when Redmond’s mother dismisses him that Runt gains an element of emotion in his voice. She’s stripped the need for any artifice from him and he can suddenly speak his mind fully.
In contradistinction, there are some characters who speak extraordinarily naturally throughout. The first and most obvious of the first hour of the film is Captain Grogan, the man who tells Barry of Quin’s plot to escape death at Redmond’s first duel. He cuts right through the bull and simply tells Redmond what really happened. The ritual of the duel means nothing to him, so he’s free to speak his own mind.
So, that’s all well and good, but why like the movie? I’ve spent almost 1500 words talking about meaning and theme and a bit on performance, but why like this film?
Well, first of all, I find it both gorgeous to look at and completely hypnotic. In some ways, these are traits that it shares with 2001, but this one looks better, I suppose. Compositions are lush and deep and wonderfully built. Using mostly natural and candlelight, Kubrick was able to create a sumptuously beautiful world from beginning to end. I particularly love the candlelit scenes (using lenses developed by NASA, apparently). I also find it completely engaging. Redmond becomes almost as despicable a character as Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and the journey is so well realized. From his impetuous youth to his jading experiences in the army and as a gambler, to his ruinous exploitation of another person’s fortune to unsuccessfully advance his own personal interests, I find Redmond Barry utterly fascinating and watchable.
Another element I love is two-fold. The two act structure of the film and the movie’s tendency to say what’s going to happen through voice over and on title cards long before they happen. For instance, the very first title card of the film that preceded the very first shot tells us how the first act will end with Redmond Barry gaining the title of Barry Lyndon. The title card for the second act does the same thing, describing his fall, and there’s voice over more than half an hour before the end of the film telling us that Barry will die childless, alone, and in poverty. The inevitability of his rise and fall is so well handled that it gains an element shared with Greek tragedy. He’s destined to fall because his fall was always within him. As the voice over says, the qualities of gaining a fortune and maintaining a fortune are not the same thing.
I remember when I saw this movie for the first time, I was probably about 18 and I thought it was pretty but boring. I dismissed it for years based on that single impression until my brother bought be a set of Kubrick films that included Barry Lyndon. “Well,” I said to myself, “I suppose I’ll be checking that out again, shall I?” That second viewing was revelatory. I instantly fell in love with the film finding it one of Kubrick’s most instantly watchable efforts. That complete 180 turn I find interesting, though I have no real explanation or solid reason for even bringing it up. It’s just nice to know that I can revisit films and discover qualities in them that I missed the first time.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4