50 years, 50 films: Barry Lyndon (1975)
In our journey through the last half-century we encounter Stanley Kubrick’s most sedate film.
We have, in this crawl through 50 years of cinema, had two opportunities to select films by Stanley Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 and A Clockwork Orange from 1971. I resisted because I, quite genuinely, preferred other films (1968 was a fine year and I find the second half of Clockwork Orange singularly unconvincing). But I also wanted to delay getting on board the annoying Kubrick cult. The director has always been greatly admired. Warner Brothers were prepared to allow their pet genius any indulgence in his pursuit of perfection. It says something about the regard in which he was held that he was allowed to make the risible, embarrassing Eyes Wide Shut. Shudder! But, in the years since his death, Kubrick has been elevated to the status of a god. A large number of film enthusiasts now seem to believe that there are two classes of film director: Mr Kubrick and all the rest. I am suspicious of all cults, but there is definitely something wrong here. For all the cold splendour of Kubrick’s vision, he doesn’t really have enough emotional or intellectual substance to count as the very best. Does he? You have to have one or the other. Don’t you?
Anyway, this is not to suggest he was not some sort of genius. After the now very dated futurology of Clockwork Orange (does any film smell so much of the 1970s?), Kubrick turned his attention to life in 18th century Europe. Based on fairly obscure novel by W M Thackery, Barry Lyndon follows the adventures of an Irish gentleman as he flirts at home, goes to war in Germany, becomes a spy, engages in a duel and so forth. Lay out the plot and you could give the impression that Lyndon is some sort of breathless melodrama. It is nothing of the sort. Even some Kubrick enthusiasts were taken aback by the leisurely pace of the film. If somebody needs to walk down a corridor, you can be sure that we sill see him pace every last inch.
But it is the most beautiful sort of torpor. Featuring carefully selected classical music — and traditional music from The Chieftains — the picture really seems to laze along at the pace of 18th century society. The attention to detail is every bit as autistically precise as it was in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Watch again the painful, carefully organised duel sequence for an example. Kubrick’s most famous decision was to shoot the night scenes entirely by candle light. A few years back, I was lucky enough to meet Sir Ken Adam, Kubrick’s regular designer, and he admitted that, though he loved the man, the demands of working for such a perfectionist were sometimes too much to bear. The heat alone from the candles alone was often intolerable.
Once again, you could argue that the end result is worryingly arid and cool. As was often his wont — think Keir Dullea in 2001 and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut — Kubrick cast an already blank actor and instructed him to act blanker still. Ryan O’Neal really is a big nothing at the heart of a gorgeous neurosis. Thackery painted Barry as a sort of restless rogue. Kubrick and O’Neal offer us a mysterious enigma whose occasional ascents are powered by a class of baffling, unseen magic.
Still, it is a truly astonishing thing to look at. Surely, the time has come for a full restoration and theatrical exhibition. The cult demands it.
For the record, other films considered for 1975 included The Travelling Players, Nashville, Salo, Picnic at Hanging Rock, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Jaws.