Barry Lyndon is the story of a man, no more, no less. A Rake’s Progress of a kind, yet progress, our hero does not. A tale of a naif, vain, selfish, constantly arriving, on the cusp of obtaining what he believes he holds most dear in the world: status. He subsumes his somewhat transparent persona to fit what he imagines is the societal norms he finds himself elevated to. Barry is the Zelig of the Age Of Enlightenment, a state that passes our “shop dummy” hero (as Ryan O’Neill was unfairly criticised) by.
Adapted by Stanley Kubrick from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, the story is split into two parts; how Irish rogue Redmund Barry achieves title and trappings of wealth as Barry Lyndon; and how misfortune dogs him from then on and leads to his downfall. The film replaces the novels unreliable first person narrative in favour of a dryly ironic third person one from Michael Hordern, save for Barry’s bedtime tales to his young son Bryan, to which we will return later.
After taking part in a duel for the affections of his cousin Nora with British officer Captain Quinn (Leonard Rossiter), Barry flees, mistakenly believing he has killed him. His family have in fact tampered with the shot, reluctant to lose the valuable stipend Quinn has promised in exchange for Nora’s hand. Barry enlists in the British army after being robbed at the outset of his odyssey. Deserting, he becomes press ganged into the Prussian army, becomes the protege of gambler and spy Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), before eventually meeting Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) at a game of cards. He marries her, achieving wealth and some social standing, before ultimately undoing all he achieved through financial profligacy and vanity, ensuring the venomous enmity of his step-son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali).
The key to Barry’s folly is a little speech by Lord Wendover (Andre Morell) which Kubrick lifted from another Thackeray novel, Vanity Fair:
“When I take up a person, Mr Lyndon, he or she is safe. There is no question about them any more. My friends are the best people. I don’t mean that they’re the most virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest of the stupidest or the richest or the best born. But the best. In a word, people about whom there is no question”.
Barry ties himself up in knots trying to fit in with this nebulous grouping, trying to achieve Wendover’s favour and secure his young son Bryan’s future with a title. He spends Lady Lyndon’s monies on lavish entertainments and ridiculous purchases – a huge painting with no idea of its true worth or aesthetic qualities (“I like the blue”), a company of men raised in the King’s name. He drives himself to ruin to impress an unfeeling aristocracy. The ideal state he seeks is a mirage on the horizon.
Kubrick said of his character to Michel Ciment, “Your feelings about Barry are mixed but he has charm and courage, and it is impossible not to like him despite his vanity, his insensitivity and his weaknesses. Barry proves to be badly unsuited to this role. He has clawed his way into a gilded cage, and once inside his life goes really bad.”
Leonard Rosenman’s incredibly powerful orchestration of Handel’s Sarabande drives home the inevitable, tragi-comic downfall of our foolish hero. Kubrick: “I first came across the Handel theme played on a guitar and, strangely enough, it made me think of Ennio Morricone. I think it worked very well in the film, and the very simple orchestration kept it from sounding out of place.”
The one true note of passion between Barry and Lady Lyndon occurs when they first meet across the card table, lit only by candle light and captured by those incredible space-age Zeiss lenses Kubrick specifically sought out to capture the authentic, immersive reality of the period (not a single studio set was used). Scored by Shubert, they exchange lingering looks. She excuses herself and goes outside to the terrace for some air. Barry follows. They gaze again into each other’s eyes and kiss gently. Not a single word is spoken. Kubrick stated, “It suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow in their relationship.”
The only other moment that engages the passion beneath their breasts (apart from the wild brawling between an enraged Barry and the goading Lord Bullingdon in front of shocked guests) is Bryan on his death bed, after a fall from a horse. Here we get the unreliable narrative of Barry as he tearfully recounts yet again to his beloved boy, his supposed single-handed defence of a position during the war. It is a truly powerful, sensitive and affecting scene, that surely nails the myth that Kubrick is cold, and that O’Neill could not act.
Throughout, Kubrick exposes the frailties, foolishness and frivolities of characters through slow reverse zoom outs from medium close-ups, to revealing tableaux through which they parade, as if paintings by Gainsborough and Hogarth, come to life. He reveals a beautiful, impassive world that will endure beyond our short time. An unusual “supercut” video is The Hats of Barry Lyndon, which illustrates Barry’s odyssey . It’s commissioner, Robert Everett-Green, said in WornJournal:
“Barry Lyndon spends the entire film trying to push his way up through a society in which clothes transmitted everyone’s status at a glance. His story is that of a man struggling to assemble and maintain the right appearances. The aristocratic widow he manages to marry is so perfectly projected by her clothing that she hardly needs to do or say anything. What Lyndon doesn’t realize is that her inertia is proof she belongs, while his pushing creates an appearance that dooms all his efforts.”
Each failing monetary transaction equates to Barry’s death by a thousand cuts, driving a wider wedge between him and his wife, and ensuring the enmity of her lickspittle servant Rev. Runt (Murray Melvin) and Lord Bullingdon. Kubrick by now was paring down dialogue and exposition in his films. “What I have found is that the more completely cinematic a film is, the less interesting the screenplay becomes. Because a screenplay isn’t meant to be read, it’s meant to be realised on film.”
Kubrick’s script for the fateful event that seals Barry’s fate simply reads, Barry duels with Lord Bullingdon. Yet this is one of the most powerful, tense and engaging sequences in the entire film, from the setting, the dread inducing reprise of Handel’s Sarabande, and Barry’s naivety.
“The setting was a tithe barn which also happened to have a lot of pigeons resting in the rafters. We’ve seen many duels before in films, and I wanted to find a different and interesting way to present the scene. The sound of the pigeons added something to this, and, if it were a comedy, we could have had further evidence of the pigeons. Anyway, you tend to expect movie duels to be fought outdoors, possibly in a misty grove of trees at dawn. I thought the idea of placing the duel in a barn gave it an interesting difference.”
Barry deliberately mis-aims, and leaves himself open to being shot in the leg by a qualing Bullingdon. Paid off by he and the smirkingly triumphant Rev Runt, Barry ends his days laid up in a Coach House, attended by his mother – neither arriving nor departing, in a way station for a fool. To reflect on another fool’s journey, in a “Lyndon Travel Tavern”: Barry Lyndon: Bravo Lima.