‘Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless.’
William Makepeace Thackeray, possessed of the finest name in all of Christendom, was perhaps best known for his panorama of London society, the novel Vanity Fair (1848). To those who are not products of the English public school system, that name is probably better synonymous with the magazine, which borrowed the title, and whose subject is a similarly vapid society. He wrote The Life and Times of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844) a few years earlier. Suffice it to say, the novel was popular in its day, but not heard of much thereafter. Which is particularly suitable – since Kubrick’s film of Barry Lyndon, released in 1975, is probably his most obscure.
Depending on your taste in film, a particular one of Kubrick’s pictures might be your favourite. But few ever rank this film among Kubrick’s best, if they have seen it at all. It did not do particularly well at the time, with most critics wondering why the director had chosen to carry on his legacy with something as drab as a period piece, of which enough were being produced. The man who made 2001 was seen as being, if not above, then perhaps a little further removed from the genre, which was usually seen as the purview of classicists and stoics. It still is, to a certain degree; and although Kubrick is now a venerated member of film history, his films are still notable for how wildly inventive they were for the time they were made.
Barry Lyndon is no exception. Borrowing from the literary tradition of the picaresque novel, the film does not quash these conventions in favour of more traditional dramatic arcs. In a picaresque, a youngish rogue, typically of the lower social order, finds himself on a journey through the high society of his day, surviving on naught but his wits. There is usually no plot, just a series of events, and the character never develops or grows – Picaro is the Spanish for ‘rogue’, after all. The novels were also notable for the realism of their style, presenting the characters and the events quite plainly, and without judgement. Kubrick decided that it was a formula that would lose none of its potency on screen, and the result is the ultimately useless life of Barry Lyndon, esq – easily the greatest passage of life ever committed to film.
The film is a long and varied sequence of events which chart the life of Redmond Barry, a minor member of the Irish gentry. But the fact that its lead character does not grow gives this film the unenviable task of making those events meaningful. The film must achieve these two extremes parallel to each other, which in isolation would produce a middling film, but together make a great one. The film is not a product of the quest for drama, it merely seeks to portray a life in all its difficult and fateful variances. Not all lives are changed by the passage of the events therein. In fact, most of Kubrick’s films follow a similar line of thinking, in one way or another – that the people of the events are largely at the behest of the world which they inhabit. For Barry, fate is a particularly cruel mistress, but he is a poorly man at heart; and so neither will conspire to make his life brilliant. From the first, he is doomed.
The history of the European gentry is littered with stories like this. Societies which praised hegemony were bound to produce enormously powerful people who circumvented meretricious behaviour. Once a man or a woman (depending on the place) rose to such a station, the world belonged to them. They became masters of the universe, and the people in their orbit had little but to follow the plumb line of their gravitational pull. They were the lords of the people in their dominions, they were the people whose opinion could hold the ear of the government. They were able to raise troops to fight overseas, collect tariffs from their arable land, and patronize artists and craftsmen. As far as a position of covetous worth was concerned, it is hard to overstate the importance of station; and the mad and the aspirational were particularly prone to chase after the dream.
The film begins with a duel, though it is not one of Barry’s. It is that of his father, who is killed, and leaves him an orphan, to be cared for by his mother, who does not remarry. In this shot, framed by a tree and a low wall, the dueling men are like the annals of fate, equally apart in size, stature and potential outcome – their life or death. The circumstances of this young man’s life may have been altered irrevocably by a gust of wind, or a less sure grip, or faulty powder. But the bullet makes its mark, and its target is the life of a young man, now without a father, who will not know money as a result, and be unable to woo his love, Nora. He chases her with abandon after seduction at a game of cards. But she soon falls for Jon Quin, a captain of the British Army who can help clear her family debt. Their childish rivalry leads to a duel, and Quin’s supposed death leads Barry to Dublin, then highway robbery, then the army; a fate cruelly foreshadowed by a regimental demonstration in his home town.
If there is a resounding drama, or something which could be compared to typical dramatic escalation, it would be in the peaks and troughs of his life. Each time his situation increases, it is torn down again; and this happens four times in the film. It happens during the aforementioned struggle, when he is about to claim his love, but is then reduced to nothing by the bandit, and forced to join the army. It happens after he joins the army and fights in the Seven Years’ war, steals an officer’s uniform, and retreats to safety. But he is discovered by a Prussian officer, who press-gangs him into regular service. Again, after he becomes an object of worth in the Prussian army, he is given the opportunity to spy on an Irish gambler, but he absconds, and leaves the border to pursue a free life once more. But it is dissatisfying; and the final arc comes when, during a session of gambling, he takes the eye of the young Lady Lyndon, whose husband dies thereafter, allowing him to marry the lady and take the title of Lord Lyndon.
It is the final arc which has the most import on the continuum of the film. In fact, the whole of the second half, after the interval, is dedicated to this aspect of his life. It is the one where he has achieved his greatest standing, and the one from which he will fall from the greatest height. It is also the one which shows us the passage of life most clearly, and begins in the soul of the viewer a long and winding tangent from which it may take some days to recover.
The film was famous for its most technically accomplished shots – those which are filmed indoors at night, in which almost no artificial light is used – the actors and the space illuminated, quite literally, by candlelight. But each and every frame of the picture deserves to be considered as a whole. Barry Lyndon was attended to less as a work of ‘period’ than it was a work of historical reconstruction. One might struggle to comprehend how many hours of ruthless consideration went into the construction of the mise en scene. What strikes one in particular is how often the camera is beset by the changing conditions of the weather. The scenes in Ireland are the most tumultuous, where the clouds will part for an instant and reveal the sun, only to shirk back once more, the fields receiving the strewn waste of confused light. Uncontrollable vagaries of nature were not edited out of the film, they were embraced; the production, like Barry, seems almost at the behest of nature.
The aforementioned William Hogarth and his body of work provide a great pattern of influence for the scenes filmed indoors, especially in the way that people are framed within a scene. Scenes like this are also lit like paintings from the period – in which the faces in the foreground are significantly brighter than the background that surrounds them. Gone are the paintings of equal weight, like those of the 17th century tradition, where the objects of covetous worth were included beside the person in the painting. The backgrounds of 18th century portraits are sometimes so dark that it will take multiple viewings to realize what is even in the background, if it is regarded as important at all. The night time scenes are typified by this detail, but the film takes its time applying this principle to the outdoor scenes.
The film does not become colourful, and the people do not become bright and garish, until Barry is far clear of his home in Ireland. Until such a time as he leaves, the palatte is muted, and the people of the film are absorbed by the gravity of the natural landscape. He is enticed by Nora’s ribbon, in the very first scene, who hides the future of great possibility in her breast. But it is ultimately the redcoat soldiers who provide the first glimpse of the world outside rural Ireland, and the passionate conflict with Quin that eventually leads him there. As he rides from his home to Dublin, he is elemental, almost one with the grass, the trees. The coats are as drab as the prospect of life, the same colour as the horses, or the clod in the mud. Whether the sun shines or passes, and just as quickly, their costume will fail to dazzle, and their faces will never expand.
But from the first, donning the red coat out of desperation, the passage of his fate will forge a path more brilliant. Barry becomes audacious by the colour of the world, the same place that fate had decided would not belong to him. He should have been seconded by his lot in life – the lot his family were given, the lot his heart was given. But, instead, were points of genesis in a brilliant and passionate existence. Though he suffered no misery harsh as a peasant, and although he was taunted by the experience of great station, he was still a man for whom the excitement and the dread of the world came rushing in in equal measure.
Now, more than ever in the world, the people who make it up are so much like Barry. The life more brilliant is both incredibly visible and deeply unattainable; one can see it everywhere. And those who cannot have it have been fed the great lie of all – that one need only find their audacious spirit, reach out, and grab it.
When Barry achieves his station, and becomes Lord Lyndon, he inherits a vast manor and fortune. The great turn of events poses one of the film’s most enduring quandaries. Does love lead Barry to his station, or is it a shallow concern, like the ordinary pursuit of power? The question is not answered directly, and it is not possible to know, given that the great exhortations of feeling are captured on film only, and not in his mind. It is a secret that serves to shroud the film considerably. Were either answer clearly true, it would change the nature of the picture in the extreme. It is possible for the viewer to believe either of the them, of course; and I would tend to believe that a great passion swept them up in the first place, leaving the question further muddled by the fragmented residue of the truth.
Their affair begins at a game of cards, with eyes that dart from still faces, conveying a message of lust. Lady Lyndon excuses herself outside, to take in fresh air, and is followed by Barry. His progress is marked by a long shot, as we follow him across the path, eyes wide for the future, towards the figure of Lady Lyndon, with her back to him. He arrives, and turns her around gently, like a wheel of fate; he kisses her passionately. Accompanied by Schubert’s trio, the andante con moto movement of his Opus. 100, we feel the inexorable pull towards the next, and the most consequential, stage of his life. He has finally succeeded in acquiring gentility by his wits, and we are able to bear witness to the beginning of a brilliant prospect.
After Lord Lyndon dies, the way is clear for their marriage, and Barry inherits more than just the manor, and the significant income of the land. He inherits a child, the irascible Lord Bullingdon, who will eventually duel with him, and lead to the cause of his next demise. Bullingdon is the source of nearly constant mischief, being that he believes his mother has sold herself out for a common rogue, and tries at every turn to belittle and scorn Barry. Barry has something like a decade or more to find a solution to Bullingdon’s intransigence, but his fate is sealed by the young man’s elevated station, and Barry’s unchangeable nature. Neither will reconcile with the other, and the man of class will prevail; one who is master of the ‘natural order of things’.
Although the rules of Picaresque speak to a bygone era of social immobility, the immovable nature of fate is still a burdensome question. Anyone who tries to grapple with their station is faced with the question of who, or what, could have intervened to make their lives different, worse, meaningful – less or more of something.
Barry Lyndon lingers in the mind of the viewer. It demands contemplation, for its subject is life. Much like the musical motifs that play several times over, highlighting the movement of life, so to do the themes and the sorrows play several times over. It is not surprising that this film was made in the nineteen seventies, a decade whose film is marked with cynicism, possessed of an especially dark and ferocious sense of humour. It is especially unsurprising that Barry Lyndon competed for Best Picture at the 48th Academy Awards alongside Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the stable of films made in 1975, humour and darkness rub shoulders in equal measure, and it can be almost impossible to pry them apart. Few decades ignored genre better than the 1970’s; what better time to make a film of the Picaresque?
And now, living in a world more iniquitous than ever, on the verge of so many great disasters, full of a youth whose lives seem to hold less prospect than almost any other generation of living memory, there is no better time for a film like Barry Lyndon – a true challenge of patience, and a spectacle of life; quiet, introspective, desperately funny and impossibly moving, all without ever asking anything of the viewer but to be taken in, follow along with the currents, and make of it whatever you will.
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