Stanley Kubrick (1975)
This adaptation of Thackeray’s story of the rise and fall of an eighteenth-century Irish adventurer is absorbing. Although it’s also often unsatisfying, what Kubrick succeeds in doing is memorable. The visual compositions that bring to mind the portraiture and landscapes (and figures in landscapes) of the period are awesomely beautiful. By suggesting that the characters are constrained by a picture frame (whether in a fine art or a cinematic context), Kubrick also conveys the sense of their being governed by their time and place, and the mores of that time and that place. The technically highly sophisticated visuals also have a simple magical effect: they bring to life a bygone era – a period of history is animated through its art history. The lushness and delicacy of the colour scheme that Kubrick and his cinematographer John Alcott create are essential to that magic. The choice of music, if not as startlingly eclectic as in A Clockwork Orange, is very shrewd. It’s not just that (especially) the Handel sarabande and the Schubert piano trio give added depth to the moving pictures on screen. The marriage of score and image makes you feel you’re witnessing something important – and makes you excited about what’s coming next. But this powerful effect also reflects a weakness in Barry Lyndon: the effect is achieved by the allure of what we see and hear rather than by the meanings beneath the externals.
Kubrick, for all his meticulous planning of the technical aspects, didn’t sufficiently think out how he wanted the characters played, or didn’t keep a close enough eye on the cast – or both. The performances are a very mixed bag, in terms of acting style, as well as quality. There are episodes such as Barry’s attempts to buy a peerage which work thanks to the sure satirical touch of the actors playing the smooth dealers with whom Barry tries to ingratiate himself – Bernard Hepton, Andre Morell, Anthony Sharpe. There are other actors in small parts – and, like the aforementioned three, best known from British television – who recall the overdrawn characterisations that detract from A Clockwork Orange: Frank Middlemass, as Lady Lyndon’s first, invalid husband; and, for all his talent as a physical comedian, Leonard Rossiter, as Barry’s opponent in a duel the outcome of which starts the hero’s picaresque progress. Dominic Savage, the boy who plays the infant Lord Bullingdon (Lady Lyndon’s son and heir), is wonderfully – and realistically – convincing, as we watch his naturally melancholy disposition harden into a calculating, superior loathing of the upstart Barry. There’s no continuity of soul, however, between this child and the empty-headed milksop that the young adult Bullingdon has become. Watching Leon Vitali in the role makes you uncomfortable because the weakness of the character is inseparable from that of the actor (at times, Vitali sounds relieved to be remembering his lines). Marie Kean is impressive as Barry’s mother: the performance goes through different registers but there’s a sustained thread of possessive loyalty to her son, as well as of crafty opportunism. It’s clear in several scenes that Mrs Barry is holding in considerable force and reserves of anger. These are gradually unleashed in her confrontation with the Reverend Runt, Lady Lyndon’s chaplain – so that the final return to controlled quietness, once Barry finds himself in reduced circumstances (in more ways than one), is all the more powerful. Murray Melvin is excellent as Runt. His extraordinary appearance allows him to create, it seems effortlessly, a comically expressionist study of a cold-blooded creep; but it’s the combination of Heepish servility and smug authority in performing his public, professional duties that makes this a richly satirical portrait. Runt seems completely realised intoning the funeral rites of Barry’s young son.
You sense in both the leads an anxiety to please the master director and an uncertainty as to what he wants them to do. As Lady Lyndon, Marisa Berenson is very beautiful but she seems part of the design – ammunition to critics who see the film as a purely technical exercise. Berenson is upstaged by her gowns, wigs, hats, and by the perfect co-ordination of her flesh tones with these accoutrements. The role is too large to be reduced in this way; and although Berenson is no doubt a limited actress, she had shown in Cabaret that, with a skilful and encouraging director, she could be affecting. Ryan O’Neal’s Barry doesn’t work in a more complex way. He looks right for the part in terms of build and colouring but there’s not much in his bearing or in what he suggests of Barry’s mind to indicate an adventurous or impulsive spirit. In the early stages, Barry seems slow-witted and physically ponderous. Towards the end of the first half, O’Neal gets the chance to show more emotional range – he conveys, in particular, that Barry is starting to realise that, if he rides his luck and takes his chances, he can make his fortune. But O’Neal’s approach seems fundamentally misguided (or unguided by Kubrick): it assumes, wrongly, that Barry’s character will be developed in a gradually more penetrating way. Perhaps Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon isn’t susceptible to that kind of exploration; Kubrick’s Barry certainly isn’t. What O’Neal gets going towards the middle of the film is bound to be a dead end because Kubrick seems to see Barry entirely as a victim of circumstance. He doesn’t want Barry to have a personality in any substantial sense. The way that O’Neal plays him, Barry doesn’t even have much ‘personality’ in the shallow sense of the word (liveliness, easy appeal etc). A further shortcoming of the performance links to a defect of the direction that goes beyond anything that the actors do. O’Neal’s physical and emotional motor isn’t quick. It’s in step with Kubrick’s deliberate pacing of the narrative but at odds with the dramatic arc of the story. Surely the first part of the film (there was an intermission when it was first shown in cinemas), which covers Barry’s chequered military career and jerky ascent up the economic ladder, needs more changes of pace – in order to suggest the unpredictable and arbitrary aspects of his climb (which culminates in his marriage to the enormously wealthy Lady Lyndon)? The second half, charting Barry’s fall from grace and favour, can afford to be slower to convey the grim inevitability of the decline. In the event, it’s hard to discern any contrast in tempo between the two halves. I think the second half may seem slower only because the nature of the events it describes also lacks variety – it’s all bad news.
Michael Hordern reads the voice-over narration wittily but this too moves to a regular beat. Since Kubrick also has the narrator tell us what will happen before we see it happen, the overall effect is confusing – as if the characters’ fates are dictated less by eighteenth-century social forces than by the omniscient third person voice of the Victorian novel. The very end of the film, however, provides a real jolt. A legend appears on the screen, reminding us that the events we’ve seen occurred in the reign of George III and that the people we’ve been watching ‘are all equal now’. The fact that we read those words rather than hear them has the effect of including the narrator himself among those equalised by death (and the moment has an extra charge now that Kubrick too is no more). The film is long (187 minutes). That it never fails to hold your interest is all the more remarkable, given the conscious attempts made to reduce the dramatic impact of key events in the story.
Academy Awards for cinematography (John Alcott), production design (Ken Adam), costume design (Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Soderlund), score adaptation (Leonard Rosenman). Others in the huge cast include Hardy Kruger and Patrick Magee.
15 September 2008
 Savage is now himself a filmmaker.