Upon release, Barry Lyndon was met with intense scorn from some critics: Pauline Kael described it as a “coffee-table movie” and others called it dry, boring, and empty. They were wrong. Barry Lyndon is a visual and philosophical masterpiece that, in my eyes, is Stanley Kubrick’s greatest work.
Adapted from a 19th century novel, Barry Lyndon follows the rise and fall of Redmond Barry, a young Irish man of humble origins who marries into an English aristocratic family. At the beginning Barry is forced to join the British army and fight in the Seven Years’ War, but he deserts the British and joins the Prussian army. After fleeing Prussia, Barry obtains large amounts of wealth through crooked gambling and consequently woos and marries an English aristocrat, Lady Lyndon, thereby adopting the name ‘Barry-Lyndon’. He spends all the noble family’s money on alcohol, gambling, and expensive artwork, and is ultimately exiled after losing a leg in a duel to his stepson.
Kirk Douglas’ character in both Spartacus and Paths of Glory is a hero driven by idealistic motives, and we can resolutely say that he is morally sound. Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange may be humorous and charming, but they are sociopaths driven by their instincts to commit profoundly disturbing acts, and it is easy to conclude that they are morally corrupt people. Redmond Barry-Lyndon, however, is Kubrick’s most thought-provoking and complicated character: it is extremely difficult to form a resounding opinion about his character as our perception and attitude towards him changes frequently and with great intensity throughout the film. Kubrick attempts to manipulate our perception of Barry using two simple yet ingenious techniques.
Firstly, a narrator constantly depicts Barry in a cold and narcissistic light; he implies that Barry lies and deceives to fulfil self-aggrandising motives such as when he over-spends the Lyndon family money to gain a title. However, Barry is only deceptive when attempting to survive and achieve acceptance from his peers – from the beginning of the film he is an isolated character who craves intimacy and is forced to commit immoral acts to achieve this.
Secondly, the camera is repeatedly positioned from the view point of those who surround Barry. We are encouraged to adopt the perception of the aristocrats who look upon the protagonist as an outsider who is not worthy of acceptance. Kubrick tries his best to invite us into the world that rejects Barry, but coincidently arouses deep feelings of sympathy by displaying Barry as an outcast involved in a series of ill-fated outcomes. The very name, “Barry-Lyndon”, illustrates the duplicity and lack of identity of the protagonist: he is both Irish and English, rough and sophisticated, poor and rich. Kubrick masterly employed modern special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey – no other film at the time could create such elegant and mesmerising portrayals of outer-space – and while the “war-room” in Dr. Strangelove is a relatively simple set, every shot was dramatic, unnerving, and at times humorous.
Kubrick’s films all involve incredible camera-work, but the aesthetically spectacular Barry Lyndon is visually superior to all others. The grandiose and ornate rooms of the palaces in Barry Lyndon are depicted as dark and lifeless, in contrast to the shots of rural Ireland, Germany, and England, which are portrayed as sun-blessed agrarian paradises. This skilfully illustrates the contrast between the simple, yet naturally beautiful, life Barry was born into and the detached, cold life of which he craved to become a part. Kubrick refused to use artificial light on set and the only illumination came from candle-light; this, coupled with frequently motionless shots, created scenes reminiscent of an 18th century oil painting. The camera is briskly taken from the tripod during periods of violence, such as when Barry brutally flogs his stepson in the Lyndon estate, highlighting how quickly civility can shift to barbarism.
By creating the monolith in 2001, Kubrick portrayed the universe as a Godless vacuum that is controlled by an ambiguous mystical force. These concepts of godlessness and mysticism are again reintroduced into the world of Barry Lyndon but in a much subtler respect. The very first scene shows Barry’s father dying in a duel, and thus throughout the film Barry lacks the omnipresent support and comfort that is associated with having a father or having a God. Barry’s life events are so extraordinary that it impossible they happen by coincidence: there may not be a God present in Barry’s world but there is unquestionably a supernatural force pulling strings in the background.
18th century Europe was a tumultuous and rapidly changing place. The French Revolution was about to give birth to the concepts of equality, fraternity, and liberty which would create the opportunity for common man to obtain a share of high society’s wealth. Barry possibly represents Kubrick’s belief that this opportunity was a fallacy, and if an 18th century common man searched for wealth they would end up isolated, detached and – in the director’s own words – “cut adrift in a rudderless boat on an uncharted sea.”