Misunderstood and underappreciated, the 1975 film has emerged as one of the icon’s most seminal creations
In 1975 Barry Lyndon was underappreciated and misunderstood, at least in Britain and the US. Some critics described Kubrick’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which charted the life of Redmond Barry, a young Irish chancer climbing society’s ladder searching for wealth and titles, as detached and cold, even boring. Pauline Kael called it “glacial”, a “coffee-table movie”. In Europe, however, the response was different and both critics and audiences recognised Barry Lyndon as a film of extraordinary beauty.
To describe Stanley Kubrick as a director for whom preparation and research were important would be to deliver the biggest understatement in cinema. It was Kubrick’s fastidious, almost obsessive attention to detail that made Barry Lyndon more than just another costume piece and more an actual documentation of the 18th Century.
Kubrick’s plan had been to make an epic historical film about Napoleon Bonaparte but his dreams crumbled as costs spiralled and other films about the Napoleonic wars such as Waterloo (1970) were released. Disheartened, Kubrick shelved Napoleon but put to use his extensive historical research for the project and transferred it to Barry Lyndon.
To coincide with its BFI re-release, we look at the reasons why Barry Lyndon should be regarded as Stanley Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece:
ART AS INSPIRATION
During pre-production of Barry Lyndon Kubrick painstakingly studied English and European paintings from the late 1700’s, looking at artists such as Gainsborough, Hogarth, Constable and Johann Joseph Zoffany, and then instructing his costume designers, production designers and location scouts to recreate these landscapes, rooms and costumes. Unlike an old episode of Sharpe or TV costume drama, Barry Lyndon’s characters aren’t just wearing costumes, they inhabit them, becoming their characters, living in the very worlds they would have lived in. The film is littered with wide angled images of battles, fields and wooded glens, with the camera slowly panning back in typical Kubrick style to reveal living, moving paintings.
USE OF LIGHT
Adding to the sense of authenticity in the film was Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott’s use and manipulation of light. Kubrick was not only inspired by the people in paintings but also the light within them. With an extraordinary eye for detail, Kubrick noticed people were often depicted sitting or standing by windows, allowing beautiful natural light to stream through. This can be seen throughout Barry Lyndon in stunning wide angle shots where characters are often positioned at the far end of the frame and bathed in natural light.
The film is memorable for a number of breathtakingly evocative scenes lit entirely by candlelight, a feat hard enough to achieve in still photography, let alone on film. While most filmmakers would have settled on giving the appearance and illusion of candlelight, Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, wanted the real thing. He sourced Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lenses used by Nasa for the Apollo moon landings, which were able to capture this low level of light. The result, in scenes such as the card game where Barry seduces Lady Lyndon, are some of the most visually exquisite in cinema history.
THE MOST 'KUBRICKIAN' KUBRICK FILM
Kubrick refused outsiders; his sets were a strictly closed shop. The press, feeling snubbed, fanned legends and rumours about how difficult the director was to work with, how he would shoot hundreds of takes per scene and was to all intents and purposes, mad. Kubrick was a kind and gentle soul but a single minded visionary who knew he had to push people for their best work- just ask Shelley Duvall, asked to be in a perpetual frenzy for the year long shoot of The Shining (1980).
It is true, most Kubrick shoots were long and arduous, indeed principal photography for Barry Lyndon lasted a mammoth 300 days. However, working on a Kubrick film was an experience his collaborators never forgot. The fact that he would work time and again with the same actors and technical staff is testament to the tight knit sense of family Kubrick built up over his career.
Patrick Magee who plays the elusive Chevalier du Balibari was the writer who tortures Alex with Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Leon Vitali, the older Lord Bullingdon went on to work as Kubrick’s assistant in every film up until the director’s death in 1999. Philip Stone who plays the dour Graham appeared as Alex’s Dad in A Clockwork Orange and most memorably as Delbert Grady, the butler/caretaker who instructs Jack Nicholson to ‘correct’ his family in The Shining. Then there was Kubrick’s technical staff- cinematographer John Alcott worked on 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Art designer Roy Walker worked on multiple Kubrick films as did production designer, the great Ken Adam. The list goes on. No director in history was given the freedom Warner Bros. gave Kubrick to choose his team, his projects, his budgets and shooting schedule. In the truest sense, Kubrick had become an ‘auteur’ or author with a truly recognisable style all his own. When Barry Lyndon arrived in the midpoint of his career, the film was a summation of everything that is ‘Kubrickian.’
TIGHT LIPPED EMOTION AND INTENSITY
Some have described Kubrick’s films, in particular Barry Lyndon, as icy and emotionless. What film were they watching? With its tapestry of characters living lives within grand and opulent surroundings, Barry Lyndon may appear somewhat detached – but beneath the facade of stately homes, card games and well-mannered gun duels, the film pulses with emotion. From the ridiculously formal duels to the opening scenes where Barry’s cousin Nora plays ‘hide the hanky’ in her heaving bosom, Kubrick conveys the intensity of sex, life and death, within the confines of oppressive tradition.
Kubrick never made the same film. Each work was a cinematic landmark, an event and covered the spectrum of genres, from historical epic with Spartacus (1960), sci-fi with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), war with Full Metal Jacket (1987) and erotic drama with Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Every Kubrick film is a masterpiece in it’s own right. With Barry Lyndon Kubrick made what could lazily be called his ‘costume drama’ but that would be a cheap label. Barry Lyndon is a film about people, our flaws, our fears and our vanity. While every Kubrick film must be seen, if only one could exist it should be Barry Lyndon, the director’s greatest achievement and a work of incredible depth and beauty.