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 the 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 birth 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 Thackeray’s 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 productions) – 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 of the 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 Thackeray’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: