I’m worried that I’m not going to have too much to say about Barry Lyndon. I enjoyed the film, I though it was mildly humorous, but the main point of it all eludes me. I’ll try my best, though.
Barry Lyndon tells the story of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), who is basically a good for nothing gambler that gets into all sorts of adventures. The film begins with him falling in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who unfortunately makes the economical choice and marries a rich English officer. He then duels the officer (duels seem to be the answer to all life problems in the eighteenth century), wins, and has to flee his native land of Ireland. Later he finds out that he shot the officer with something not as lethal as a bullet; he was tricked. The officer lived, and Nora married him anyway. The whole thing was a plot to get him to leave, and it worked. Robbed on his way out, he is forced to join the English army and fight in the Seven Years War (the European equivalent of the French and Indian War).
During his first battle, which is just a minor skirmish in the grand scheme of the war, one of his friends is wounded and killed. He is so upset about this that he deserts, and with disastrous consequences. He impersonates an officer, but is discovered and then blackmailed into joining the Prussian army (they are allied with the English). As bad as the English army was, the Prussian army is worse, dealing out harsher punishments for lesser infractions. Needless to say, Redmond Barry is not too happy with his predicament. Once the war is over, he becomes concerned with amassing enough wealth so that he doesn’t have to go through any of this again. He makes friends with another exiled Irishman, The Chevalier (Patrick Magee), and together they gamble their way to glory. Still not satisfied with this wealth and nomadic existence, Barry schemes to marry the rich Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).
He succeeds, and this is the point where the film stops being so much fun. It wasn’t a ton of fun before, but there were some humorous scenes. Barry getting robbed was pretty funny, he has a fairly polite conversation with the robbers and he gets to keep his boots which apparently is something they do not normally allow. The best part comes toward the end though, he keeps his hand up even as the robbers are telling him to leave. “You can put your hands down now, Mr. Barry!” The robbers have to explain to him how the whole thing works, which is pretty funny. Another humorous scene was when Barry suddenly decides to desert. The opportunity that gives rise to this is pretty funny. I also cracked up at the actual wedding ceremony. The Reverend that marries them has memorized the words he needs to say, but nevertheless has the book with him, opened, and stops in his recitation to turn the page! This was totally unnecessary and had me laughing pretty hard. It’s probably the second funniest marriage I have ever seen in film, the first being The Princess Bride.
The problem with the second half is that Barry is not alone anymore. Where before his selfish actions only affected himself, he now has the opportunity to ruin the lives of the woman who loves him and her son. Lady Lyndon is a pretty sympathetic character. She fell in love with Barry and now Barry basically ignores her, cheats on her, and spends all of her money. She bears all of this with grace, probably because she doesn’t have much choice. Her son though, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), is another story. I felt sorry for him when he was a kid, I mean in all fairness he’s completely justified in hating Barry. I felt like he should have gotten over it by the time he was older though. He starts making all of these pathetic scenes all over the place and my sympathy evaporated pretty quickly. He also treats Bryan, Barry’s son, terribly even though he actually didn’t do anything wrong. Barry spoils him all over the place, but Lord Bullingdon should be old enough by now to realize that this is not Bryan’s fault. He only gets more obnoxious and petty as the film goes on, but that doesn’t stop him from being a threat to Barry.
I did say that it was hard for me to identify some sort of overarching point to this film. The really only thing I can think of is that Barry is wounded in his early life, and thinks that by making tons of money and achieving and enviable social position he will escape anything that could potentially wound him further. He looks out for himself at the expense of others which was also ends up getting him into trouble. His wealth is fun when it lasts, but eventually he loses through the way he disregards other people. The film this actually most reminds me of is Gone with the Wind. They are told in completely different tones, but the story and the protagonists are pretty similar. They are not exactly the same of course, there’s that whole love triangle thing in Gone with the Wind that takes up a great portion of the story that is not present here at all. Scarlett and Barry both go through wars and hate them, and then as a reaction to the suffering they’ve endured and witnessed they try to make tons of money. Both loose a child, both marry people they don’t love, and they’re even both Irish. The main difference is in how the story is told. Gone with the Wind has a lot of emotion in it and is very subjective, Barry Lyndon is the opposite of that.
Though the film takes the trouble to follow Barry around for his whole life, it doesn’t seem to care much about him. There’s this very detached air about the whole film, which was one of the things I found funny about it. It’s use of a narrator (Michael Hordern) helped to distance us from what was actual going on. He often tells us what’s going to happen before it happens, and then most (if not all) of the events he tells us about aren’t actually shown. The narrator, and the whole film in general, just had this slightly amused air about it like “look at this puny little Barry guy, look at him living his silly little life! Let me tell you about it in advance because it’s actually not that exciting to watch!” There isn’t too much dialogue in the film, but even though I’m a big fan of dialogue this didn’t really bother me because the narrator made up for it. We mostly just see the characters moving around. There’s one scene where this was really apparent to me. Lady Lyndon and Lord Bullingdon are walking along one day, and they see Barry making out with a maid or some other chick. Their faces are completely impassive, but Lord Bullingdon takes his mother’s hand which says a lot. He knows his mother’s upset, and he tries to comfort her. They walk on, trying to ignore it. Usually when characters aren’t talking, I’m focusing on their facial expressions, but this film has a different kind of acting made up of simple actions like the one I just described. Maybe that means the actors had a bit of an easier job in this film, but the effect is just as powerful.
I was thinking while watching this film that all of the lighting was either natural or candlelight, but according to wikipedia this is actually not the case. Though much of the film was shot with only candlelight, requiring Kubrick to get a special type of lens from NASA, a lot of the natural light was supplemented with regular light that was supposed to look like natural light. He succeeded well enough with that to fool me at least, for whatever that’s worth. This really brings you back to the eighteenth century, when they obviously didn’t have the benefit of electricity. Kubrick also purposely staged a lot of the scenes to look like paintings, resulting in a very beautiful film, and again very detached. The soundtrack is also really good. It starts off with more traditional Irish sounding stuff in the beginning, and then as Barry leaves home it goes more Baroque on us. Either way, it sounds great and works with the story really well.
I’m not really sure what Thackery set out to accomplish with his novel, because the story doesn’t really seem that compelling. Not that I was bored with the film, because I wasn’t. Kubrick’s attitude toward the story is fascinating, entertaining, and even a bit funny. As usual, I was surprised by how funny this film was. I had heard it was going to be boring, so that’s what I had prepared myself for. The most frequent complaint about this film seems to be that nobody cares about Barry as the main character, and I can’t really blame that opinion. I just kept watching because I wanted to see where Kubrick was going to go with this guy.
“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars