The BFI’s release of a 4K restoration print of Barry Lyndon is now doing the rounds of UK specialised screens. After my recent viewing of the new Blu-ray of Novecento/1900, I wondered how Stanley Kubrick would measure up to Bertolucci with a similarly long and meticulously created historical drama. I didn’t see Barry Lyndon on its 1975-6 UK release but I vaguely remember its poor reception by critics and its lack of commercial success (i.e. compared to Clockwork Orange in 1971-2). Since that first release Barry Lyndon‘s stock has risen considerably and now it is taken by some critics to be Kubrick’s masterpiece. Intrigued by this change of heart I went back to the extended review article by Penelope Houston in Sight and Sound Spring 1976. She sets out what reads now as a calm and measured view on the film and one which seems spot on to me. Sight and Sound gave the film a 3 star (out of 4) rating. I also checked Monthly Film Bulletin in which Richard Combs also gives a positive/constructive review so the critical reception was not all negative. Houston does quote some of the negative comments by UK and US press reviewers and says that she herself was puzzled by the film, but then uses the space available to her (as editor of Sight and Sound) to produce a more measured response.
Background to the production
Barry Lyndon is argued to be the eventual outcome of Kubrick’s frustrated attempt to make a film set during the Napoleonic Wars. After a lukewarm response from Warner Bros. he turned instead to an early work by Thackeray, first published as a serial in 1844 and later re-issued as a novel. Set in the second half of the 18th century, the story (based on a real biography) involves a young Irish ‘gentleman’ named Redmond Barry with limited prospects who seeks to better himself and who, after adventures in Prussia and across Europe, marries a wealthy widow, Lady Lyndon, with land and a small son (who inherits his father’s title). Barry becomes ‘Barry Lyndon’ but ultimately fails to establish himself as a member of the aristocracy and is effectively defeated by his own stepson. The story is in some ways a precursor to the much more well-known Vanity Fair (1847) with Becky Sharp as its protagonist. Kubrick appears to have altered significant aspects of the narrative of Barry Lyndon, including changing the narrator from Barry himself to an unseen ‘omniscient’ narrator voiced by Michael Hordern. The suggestion is that Kubrick loses something of Thackeray’s comedy and changes the nature of his satire. For some audiences this means it is more difficult to understand what it is that Kubrick wants to say about 18th century British life or about the aristocracy of Europe. The two charges against the film are therefore that it is ‘cold’, ‘distant’ and ‘static’ and that Kubrick’s intention is difficult to define.
The outcome of the film’s Oscar nominations seems to have been influenced by these charges so that its four Oscar wins were all ‘technical’ – Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Music Scoring. Kubrick himself was nominated in three categories – Best Picture, Direction and Adapted Screenplay – but didn’t win for any of these. I’m not sure about the music (an acknowledged strength of Kubrick’s production) – it is certainly noticeable and there are some excellent choices but sometimes it seems heavy-handed. The other three awards are richly deserved. Cinematographer John Alcott worked with Kubrick to produce interiors lit only with candles and the long shots of landscapes and several interiors evoke the fine art painting of the 18th century masters. It’s hard to deny that the film is wondrous to behold on screen. But what does it all mean?
Kubrick followed the (eminently sensible) roadshow convention of inserting an intermission so there is a part 1 of 102 mins and a Part 2 of 82 minutes. Part 1 is the picaresque adventure and Part 2 is the failed attempt to become an aristo. Richard Combs argues that by removing Barry’s ironic narration and presenting the action in such a distanced way Kubrick creates a character who is first passive and then compliant as an agent in the cold, harsh world of 18th century Europe. He sees a connection to Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory and he argues that Ryan O’Neal as Barry is “not perverse casting against type, but essential to the way Kubrick has revised the character of Thackeray’s swashbuckling braggart”. Combs goes on to carefully sketch out how this works. He may well be right but I’m afraid I’m still stuck with O’Neal as miscasting.
Ryan O’Neal was undoubtedly a star in the early 1970s with lead roles in Love Story, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon – films which did very well at the box office, pleased many critics and won awards. In most of these roles O’Neal is the romantic/passive/idealist figure. I certainly see these elements of his star persona in Barry Lyndon but the role also demands cunning/deceit and a form of courage which is less in evidence for me. I’m not suggesting that this is ‘bad acting’ but rather that O’Neal brings ‘star baggage’ that works against the other performances, mostly by British character actors. Leonard Rossiter offers one of his gurning comic turns but generally the rest of the cast fits Combs’ overall description of the world Kubrick creates. I wondered how Barry might have come across played by Malcolm McDowell. I was thinking not only of Clockwork Orange but also of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). Penelope Houston points out that McDowell also appeared as an early 19th century scoundrel/cad in Royal Flash (1975) and argues that he might have portrayed Thackarey’s original Barry – but not Kubrick’s revised version. I think the point here is simply to recognise that in ‘reading’ Kubrick’s film it is too constricting to take it as either an auteurist project or a literary adaptation. The approach to cinematography, set design and costumes places the film in relation to a long history of attempts to represent British landscapes and rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was reminded of Chris Menges’ work on Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) (set in Yorkshire in the 1750s) and in my post on that film I discuss many of the other titles to which Kubrick’s film alludes, if only tangentially, via its concern with landscape and forms of realism.
I’m pleased to have seen Barry Lyndon. I think that what I most enjoyed was the array of British character actors as well as the sheer beauty of the film. I did feel distanced from the narrative but I think with a second viewing I would fully appreciate the Houston/Combs readings and understand Kubrick’s project. But I don’t think I would be moved by it. I’d like now to go back to Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair (2004), a film I did enjoy at the time despite its generally poor critical reception and indifferent box office. Both Nair and Kubrick represent attempts to use Hollywood money to make ‘international films’ based on British literary texts by the same author. Their very different approaches are worth exploring.
Barry Lyndon new 2016 trailer:
Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.
In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.
There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)
The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.
Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.
It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.
This is one of the most powerful and popular of C19th English novels. The author, Charlotte Brontë, published two other novels but it is this work which has made her famous. I read it in my teens, twelve times as I remember. I was immediately taken with the manner in which Jane challenged authority, especially male authority. And besides this there was the potent Gothic aspect which suffused much of the novel. This is not a novel that can be transferred in all its complexity and power to the screen: but the melodramatic plot does work well on film.
This Hollywood version, directed by Robert Stevenson, was the third, though the 1910 film was only a reel in length. Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:
“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).
There have been more film and television versions since then. We now have had Charlotte Gainsborough working with Franco Zefferelli, Samantha Morton working with Robert Young and Mia Wasikowska with Cari Joji Fukunaga. Gainsborough and Morton make a better fist of the strong woman to my mind: whilst Fukunaga’s 2011 version gets stuck in odd variations from the plot.
One of the limitations of this 1943 version is the casting. Jane is played by Joan Fontaine, who was the wife in a film version of that lesser masterwork inspired by Jane Eyre, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ (1940). Fontaine’s performance is closer to the somewhat submissive heroine of Du Maurier than to Brontë’s Jane. This point is accentuated by the casting of Orson Welles as Rochester. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,
“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “
Moreover, when could he resist directing as well, and the film bears many of his hallmarks.
However, in the rather different presentation from the novel both stars are very good. And they are supported by some excellent actors, including Agnes Moorehead and Henry Daniel and the young Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien.
The script of the film was (surprisingly) by Aldous Huxley with contributions from the director and John Houseman. The screenplay was in part an adaptation of a broadcast version by The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The film does provide a voice-over to present Jane’s point of view, but not all key parts of the film enjoy this. Moreover, two key characters are missing from the film version, Miss Temple from the Lowood school and St. John Rivers from Jane’s odyssey away from Thornfield. Both, in different ways, are important in the characterisation of our heroine.
Stylistically the film broadly follows the conventions of Hollywood studios, thus reinforcing the position of the men in the film. However, it does capture the Gothic atmosphere, especially at Thornfield. There is some excellent use of high and low key lighting by the cinematographer George Barnes. And an equally Gothic feel is imparted by the score from Bernard Herrmann.
This is a classic Hollywood adaptation of a great novel. The characters and plot are recognisable but I rather think Charlotte Bronte would have wanted quite a few rewrites if she had been involved. It does though score with the acting and the production. There are pleasures in the narration, style and performances, notably that of Welles. Happily when the Picturehouse at the National Media Museum screen the film this Saturday they will be relying on a 35mm print, which is apparently in excellent condition . This will certainly do full justice to the visual pleasures of the film.
The screening is preceded by a panel discussion chaired by Samira Ahmed. The panel plan to comment on the book, the film adaptations and the works’ popularity. It will be interesting to hear what they may say about the Brontë and the Stevenson versions. Lovers of either will also get a chance to pose questions about this.
April 23rd sees celebration to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. He is certainly England’s most famous and celebrated writer and there have been numerous adaptation of his plays. These range from one-reel minimal adaptations in the early years of cinema to substantial and lengthy features. Park Circus have with their usual promptness joined in the act with a list of films available for theatrical screenings. Helpfully they also list whether these are available in 2K or 4K digital versions. Note though, there have been cases in the past where a feature DCP is actually from a DVD or Blu-Ray uploaded into the format.
Writers on film adaptations have offered models for discussion. One set of categories has been offered by the writer by Geoffrey Wagner:
Transposition, ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’
Commentary, ‘where an original is taken and with purposively or inadvertently altered in some respect … when there has been a different intention on the part of the filmmaker, rather than infidelity or outright violence.’
Analogy, ‘which must represent a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.’
Examples of all three variants can be found below.
All Night Long UK 1962, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.
Basil Dearden repositions ‘Othello’ in London’s jazz scene of the 1960s. Featuring Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and more. Available in 2K.
I really rate this film and the jazz performances are excellent.
Othello USA 1995, in colour and standard widescreen
Laurence Fishburne breaks new ground as the first African American actor to star in a major studio adaptation of ‘Othello’. Available in 2K.
Fishburne is very effective. The adaptation makes frequent cuts to the text but sticks to the play. The accents are variable.
Hamlet USA 1996, in colour and originally 70mm.
Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged epic now available on DCP.
Impressive though it also uses ‘star names’ for supporting cameos which is a little distracting.
Hamlet UK 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio.
Laurence Olivier performs drama’s most famous role.
Impressive and this is Olivier’s metier. John Huntley recalled that the voice of the ghost at the opening was ingeniously recorded with a microphone dropped into a cistern as the words were voiced through the studio piping.
Henry V / The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France UK 944, in Technicolor and Academy ratio.
Olivier heads once more unto the breach.
Splendid and imaginative. Among its many fine qualities are the cinematography by Robert Krasker and Jack Hillyard and the music of William Walton.
Henry V UK 1989, in Technicolor and standard widescreen.
Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut, restored in 2K.
A worthy alternative to the Olivier version. Also graced by fine cinematography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Patrick Doyle.
Theatre of Blood UK 1973, in deluxe colour and 1.66:1 ratio.
Vincent Price’s Shakespearean actor adds murder to his repertoire, now on DCP.
Price is hammy but great and there is the added attraction of Diana Rigg. I rather think Shakespeare would have enjoyed this. The film offers gruesome variations of ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘King Lear’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Othello’, ‘Richard III’ and Titus Andronicus.
Romeo and Juliet UK/Italy 1968, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio. [There was a 70mm version and there are different lengths, the longest was 149 minutes].
4K restoration of Zeffirelli’s classic adaptation.
This works well, John McEnery as Mercutio is the most Shakespearean but it does capture youthful passion.
West Side Story USA 1961, in Technicolor and originally 70mm.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ gets a New York update.
This is one of the great transformations of a play. The choreography by Jerome Robbins is stunning as is the main music by Leonard Bernstein. The romantic couple are not really adequate but there is Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to compensate.
Richard III UK 1955, in Technicolor and 1.66:1 ratio.
Olivier’s crowning performance as the man who would be king.
Again Olivier provides a definitive interpretation. More music by William Walton and noir cinematography by Otto Heller.
Richard III UK 1995, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 widescreen
Ian McKellen is Shakespeare’s most notorious villain, 2K restoration.
McKellen provides a bravura re-interpretation as a fascist leader in the 1930s.
The Tragedy of Macbeth UK 1971, in Technicolor and 2.35:1 ratio
Polanski’s brutal interpretation, restored in 4K.
One of the most violent rendering of the play: and typical of Roman Polanski, even down to the music by the Third Ear Band.
King Lear UK 1971, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio.
Peter Brook’s uncompromising take on Lear’s descent into madness.
Impressive Danish landscapes and Paul Schofield in the lead.
My Own Private Idaho USA 1991, in colour and standard widescreen.
Gus Van Sant’s street hustlers travel through the history plays.
Combining the two parts of ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ with freedom and with settings in the contemporary USA and Italy. River Phoenix is excellent and one can imagine Shakespeare loving the suggestions made by the film.
Most of the above films could also be screened from 35mm prints if enlightened distributors and exhibitors so wished. And there are other fine variants of the Bard’s work.
Akira Kurosawa made several adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, available in subtitled versions.
Throne of Blood / Kumonosu-jô 1957, in black and white and in Academy ratio. The film has a bravura performance by Mifune Toshirô as ‘Macbeth’ and is filmed in the style of Noh Theatre. Possibly the most original treatment of a classic Shakespeare play.
The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru 1960, in black and white and Tohoscope. [The Japanese version is longer, 151 as against 132 minutes]. The film can be read as a version of ‘Hamlet’ and develops its own inexorable sense of the tragic.
Ran 1985, in colour and standard widescreen. Based on ‘King Lear’ this is an epic film with lustrous visuals and an ironic treatment of the characters.
Orson Welles is another filmmaker who repeatedly revisited Shakespeare’s work. Note, that in most cases there are either different length versions or truncated versions.
Macbeth 1948, in black and white and Academy ratio. Welles does wonders with a small budget and some serious trimming of the play.
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice 1952, black and white and in Academy ratio. This is noir or expressionist Shakespeare. Welles’ Othello is matched by Micheál MacLiammóir’s Iago. The production, involving five cinematographers, four editors, two designers and two composers, was itself a legendary odyssey.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight 1965, in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio. Taken from ‘Henry IV Parts 1 and 2’, ‘Henry V’ and the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’. This is one of the great treatments of a Shakespearean character. Essential viewing for Shakespeare and the cinema.
Grigori Kozintsev is another great interpreter of the Bard, these are in Russian with subtitled versions..
Hamlet 1964, in black and white and Sovscope. This has a terrific lead in Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy and a major contribution to the script by Boris Pasternak.
King Lear / Korol Lir 1971, in black and white and Sovscope with subtitles. Magnificent with the settings providing the desolation which is at the centre of the play. Again with scripting by Boris Pasternak and a score by Dimitri Shostakovich.
Then there is the William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet USA 1996, in colour and 2.35:1. Many imaginative and contemporary touches, but also frequently camp. Luhrmann, unlike Shakespeare [except in ‘Titus Andronicus’] never knows when to stop.
Omkara India 2006 in colour and 2.35:1 and with subtitles. This is a Hindi language version of ‘Othello’. This is the Bard with real panache. The translation to the subcontinent is really intelligent.
The Merchant of Venice USA 2004, in De Luxe colour and 2.35:1. Al Pacino is splendid as the much debated Shylock. The performance captures the contradiction at the heart of the famous play.
Then if you want something a little lighter in tone.
The Taming of the Shrew USA 1967, in Technicolor and 2.35:1. [Also screened in 70mm]. Shakespeare comes off well, Richard Burton is excellent but Elizabeth Taylor walks off with the honours.
Kiss Me Kate USA 1953, in Ansco Color and both 3D and ‘flat screen’, [which does not help technically]. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ again and Ann Miller is splendid, Cole Porter is tuneful and the film has the mantra for this whole post – ‘Brush up your Shakespeare!”. Be warned, there are probably another 400 film versions.