In a way we have Napoleon to thank for Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s long cherished dream to film the definitive biopic of the Frenchman never materialised after another film based on his life failed at the box office, and apart from some test footage for costume purposes no actual film exists. Kubrick was reportedly furious that the film was cancelled, having spent a great deal of time (and money) on pre-production, but the seeds of the research can be seen in the beginnings of Barry Lyndon.
This isn’t to dismiss the film merely as the “almost Napoleon”, in fact in a fashion it’s the last time his vision was tied to as tight a script as this (as much as I love The Shining & Full Metal Jacket, they are “problematic” in the script department at times), and it serves as an interesting reflection of his other films. It shares the same pitch-black humour as Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, as well as the tale of a disaffected young man from that film as well. Its obsession with the details of living arrangements, sexual politics and society can also be seen in Eyes Wide Shut. It unfortunately also marked the end of his productive streak; it would be five, seven and twelve years respectively between his next films, and in between we would only catch rumours of what he was involved with (or of his increasingly bizarre habits, many of which were later shown to be untrue).
As ever, Kubrick began with the script – ditching the narration of the lead character and instead adding a new, unseen unreliable narrator (although many characters in the film could fill the role, chiefly The Chevalier and Bullingdon – although the latter lends an interesting turn to the film) in order to broaden the appeal of the satire. The film is an oddity in that whilst long and sometimes episodic, it moves at a quick pace often covering years of unseen action with a witty aside to the audience. The writing feels clever and witty, but never condescending to the audience or the characters it is commenting on, remarking drily about events without providing a moral commentary. Beyond the dialogue, every action has been scrutinised to add to the overall sense of depth being created – although it is noticeable that Kubrick at times treats the main protagonist as little more than another piece of the scenery in his vision.
Which brings us to the casting; Ryan O’Neal was an actor better known for light comedy and romance at the time rather than serious fare like this and his involvement was questioned at first – it needn’t have been. Kubrick (wisely) realised that because of the awful things that Lyndon gets up to during the course of the film he needed someone whom the audience would sympathise with to play him (Lyndon is merely trying to better himself – he just becomes bored and self-destructs when he gets there). The same trick had worked with Malcolm McDowell and A Clockwork Orange, no matter how outrageous or vile he acted we still feel that he has been wronged come the end (like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick also shortened the ending, removing the coda that indicates the hero has learnt from his experience – a common theme in his films where there is often the sense of the events being a snapshot in the life rather than a point reached). O’Neal in turn produced probably his best work, at times appearing to be lost in a far off thought and not actually part of the events as they occur. Kubrick manipulating O’Neal as the characters manipulate Lyndon.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, in particular Marisa Berenson as Lady Bullingdon, the unwitting means of Lyndon securing his place in society. Even more than O’Neal she is sometimes reduced to merely part of the scenery, but just watch the final scene of the film when a lifetime of regret and wonder at what could have been washes across her face realise how integral to the film her lack of emotion is. I’ve often felt that Kubrick short changed his women (his films are fiercely masculine at times), but hers may be the best performance of the film.
Barry Lyndon also presents us with a master-class in Kubrick the technician. Using low light, high speed lenses developed by NASA he photographed in as low light as possible for the interior scenes, often severely limiting the movements of his actors to avoid blur in order to produce an almost painterly quality to the indoor scenes. Outside, the landscape is wrapped in either fog or smoke depending on the circumstances, with few scenes occurring in broad daylight and then only to provide a contrast to what is to come. By now utilising existing music more than an original score, the soundtrack reflects Lyndon’s journey, becoming more sophisticated, but brooding as the film progresses. The editing is superb, not a beat is wasted. The scene where Lyndon tells an old story to his dying son is a master class in the jump cutting – we know it is coming but it still shocks all the same.
Kubrick presented this list with an early difficulty. He’s long been my favourite director, having produced a masterpiece in nearly every genre and it would have been too easy to include the four films he released during my lifetime and be done with it, but that would have been a cheat. Only The Shining (by no means perfect, but still one of the superior films in the horror genre) provided stiff competition to the inclusion of Barry Lyndon, but in the end Lyndon won. As I commented at the beginning, it feels like a summation of his career, taking elements from the films that had been and were to come. It makes you wonder what Napoleon would have been like, a masterpiece or just too much for the viewer to handle? It was the last Kubrick film I saw and now I think I’ve watched it more than any of the others (and if you get the opportunity to see it on a big screen I highly recommend it, the compositions are nothing short of breath-taking at large scale). I’m still not fully sure what I think of it really, it remains an oddity in some senses – a throwback to an early age of filmmaking as the brats took over.