Friday, 16 August 2019

Kubism, Part 10:
Barry Lyndon (1975)

Having spent years fruitlessly dicking around with his doomed film about Napoleon, Stanley Kubrick found himself perched atop an impressive - but frustratingly useless - mountain of research relating to 18th century Europe. Scrabbling around for a chance to utilise all this material, Stan landed upon an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray which, conveniently, would also allow him to indulge one of his favourite preoccupations: musing on the corrosive effects of flawed masculinity. And lo, another Kubrickian protagonist of dubious moral fibre was born. His name, somewhat incongruously, was Barry.

To be truthful, Barry Lyndon begins life as Redmond Barry, Esq. of Barryville, Ireland, and the first part of his story (as told by Stanley Kubrick) concerns the means by which he acquires the style and title of Barry Lyndon. It's the eventful rise of a likeable dimwit from the muck of an Irish farmyard to the polished brass of Euro-aristocracy through blind luck (good and bad), ruthless ambition and barefaced dishonesty. The second part contains an account of the misfortunes and disasters which befall Barry Lyndon, most of which are wickedly satisfying to behold given his earlier behaviour, but because this is Kubrick you're never quite left in peace to form a one-sided opinion. What's inarguable, though, is that - like Humbert Humbert, Alex DeLarge and others who preceded and succeeded him in the Kubrick canon - Barry is a man, and not a particularly good one at that.
In a crowded field, Barry Lyndon opens with a strong contender for Kubrick's best voiceover. Michael Hordern's droll, amiable tones narrate proceedings with a detached amusement, as if he's reading you a whimsical bedtime story - which is, of course, exactly what this is: a cautionary fable, warning of the consequences of low morals and high wigs. Kubo ditched the novel's first-person narration because by his very nature Barry would have been an unreliable narrator, and Stan didn't want the disparity between Barry's words and actions to tip his film too far into comedy. It's a shame, because Barry Lyndon could do with a few more lols, but then Kubrick's only other comedy was Dr. Strangelove, and personally I can do without any more of that.

After his dad is killed in a duel "over the purchase of some horses", we meet the young Barry at the beginning of an odyssey which will see him collect a series of replacement father figures of varying suitability. Barry Senior is never referred to again, Kubrick avoiding pinning Barry Junior's psychological faults on anything as trite as the loss of a father at an early age. But that death echoes through the film in the duels Barry fights himself, as well as in further unexpectedly tragic consequences of equine commerce.
Another potential source of Barry's future problems is next up: his first love Nora, around whom he is hopelessly inexperienced. Little wonder that she throws him over for rubber-faced Captain Reggie Perrin of the British Army, igniting in Barry a raging jealousy of all soldiers and a general disdain for women. Again, Kubrick doesn't want to explicitly blame anything on Nora's actions - like A Clockwork Orange's Alex, Barry must be allowed to make his own life choices, only this time we're denied the relentless point-of-view shots that might lead us to sympathise with the protagonist. Kubrick's camera generally maintains a stately distance from its subjects here, avoiding the tools of melodrama but stoking the fires of critics who accuse him of a dispassionate coldness.

So off Barry goes, joining the British Army, then the Prussian Army, then becoming a spy, then a double agent, then hooking up with a fellow Irish con artist and blagging his way into the upper classes with a winning cocktail of blarney and balls. At various stages, matters of honour are settled by ritual, civilised violence - duels by pistols, swords, or fists - and Kubrick lavishes attention on these scenes. It's partly through a desire to show the comic absurdity of such polite barbarism, but the effect is to reinforce the toxic nature of what passes for "gentlemanly" behaviour in Barry's world. His repeated successes in these arenas serve only to top up his bravado, but the law of averages suggests that each successive duel carries less guarantee of him walking away from the next in one piece.
By the end of Part I, Barry has philandered, bounded and cadded his way into the heart of Lady Lyndon not out of love, but out of a desire for the entitlement that a union with her would bring. "Determined never to fall again from the rank of a gentleman" (in the achingly ironic words of the narrator), Barry gets everything he wanted. Not for the first time, though, Kubrick warns us of the dangers of over-reaching: Barry's success at class migration is as short-lived as almost all of Stan's protagonists' attempts to control their own destiny. Years later Barry is stuck in a loveless marriage, with an arch-nemesis for a stepson and a son he genuinely cares for, but with whom he frequently (and, in the end, tragically) overcompensates for his own lack of paternal love. His failings as a man catch up with him, but that trademark Kubrickian ambiguity refuses to let you enjoy his fate too much.

Kubrick takes his sweet time telling Barry's story, the running time gently nudging into a fourth hour, and another regular, infuriating criticism is that the film is as static as the landscapes of Gainsborough and Constable which it so often emulates. But that is to reject the opportunity Kubrick gives you to drool over some of the most gorgeous cinematography since, well, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Barry Lyndon boasts stunning outdoor shots that deserve to be held for hours at a time, as well as dreamy interiors famously lit only by candles and shot with lenses specially designed by NASA, presumably left over from Kubrick's faked moon landings. That shallow depth of field and those long, slow zooms are things of heart-soaring beauty, but even in its uglier moments Barry Lyndon is pure art: there's more than a touch of Hogarth in the tableau of Barry slumped in an alcoholic stupor when fate comes claiming satisfaction.
The dialogue, too, is to die for: if the Coen Brothers made a period dramedy set in 18th century England, they'd be hard pressed to write dialogue as lip-smacking and ear-licking as, for example, this from the aforementioned scene, delivered over forty languorous seconds by Barry's victimised stepson:
LORD BULLINGDON

Mister Redmond Barry. The last occasion on which we met, you wantonly caused me injury and dishonour, in such a manner, and to such an extent, no gentleman can willingly suffer without demanding satisfaction, however much time intervenes. I have now come to claim that satisfaction.
Perhaps Barry Lyndon's defining legacy is that, over forty years after its release and nearly two and a half centuries after it's set, it's as relevant as ever. As long as there are venal, narcissistic, dangerously ambitious liars willing to worm their way to the highest status despite being catastrophically unsuitable for that status, there will always be the luck of Barry Lyndon waiting to put them back in their place. Maybe the last word should go to the spectacularly-monikered George Savage Fitz-Boodle, the fictional editor of Barry's memoirs in Thackeray's novel:
"The moral of the story [is] that worldly success is by no means the consequence of virtue; that if it is effected honestly sometimes, it is attained by selfishness and roguery still oftener; and that our anger at seeing rascals prosper and good men frequently unlucky, is founded on a gross and unreasonable idea of what good fortune really is."

Next time on Kubism, come play with us at the Overlook Hotel! 5% discount on room 237, no reason.

No comments :

Post a Comment