Barry Lyndon might be best seen as a response to the falling apart of Kubrick’s cherished Napoleon project. That was at a fairly advanced stage when the studio got cold feet and withdrew backing, on noting the poor showing of Waterloo. Kubrick moved on to cheapie A Clockwork Orange, but then resumed his quest for a period piece. He was first attracted to Thackery’s Vanity Fair but decided against it for what appears to have been a combination of the length required to do the book justice and a BBC adaptation that was in the offing. He then settled on another story by the author, one credited with originating the protagonist as anti-hero in literature (I suspect this is quite disprovable, but it sounds good).
What one senses from all this is of a director casting about for material that seems to loosely fit his criteria for a film. And I’d argue the finished piece bears that air of “Why did he want to make this?” The deliberate, measured pace of the three hour-plus film bears witness to a director able to make any material engrossing, but you end up questioning the wisdom of a number of decisions Kubrick makes.
I haven’t read Thackery’s novel, but my understanding it has a comic tone. Lyndon himself is the narrator, and an unreliable one at that; the reader is invited to question what has been invented and what is true. Kubrick makes the choice to considerably reduce the humorous elements of the story; indeed, the film plays out on tragic lines, albeit a tragedy where the viewer is not really invested in the events that befall the main character. There is a satirical edge, admittedly, mostly due to Michael Hordern’s benign but unvarnished narration, but the characters are never encouraged to embrace the satire; they expose the absurdity of class pretensions with an icy precision. While some have said the film Kubrick ends up making is the anti-Napoleon, it strikes me as most comparable to a film made twelve years earlier, in terms of what it is not. Tony Richardson’s version of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is very much the unfettered comedy, positing its commentary on class within the safety of the central character’s bawdy exploits. It also takes every opportunity it can to explore the artifice of its creation, which includes camera trickery (speeding up movement) and fourth wall-breaking. Crucially, and the biggest hurdle preventing Kubrick’s film from being a great rather than a merely good film, it has a lead performance full of charisma and energy (from Albert Finney).
Kubrick (quote courtesy of wiki) commented of two of his decisions on adapting the material:
I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting. Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry’s view of his life. This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, in a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray’s first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen. It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry’s version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don’t think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy.
I suppose the next question is, “Why don’t you think Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy, Stanley?” Not only does the absence of Barry as narrator reduce our connection with the character (just look at Alex in A Clockwork Orange to see how we can be made to identify with a reprehensible character through confidential voice over), the casting of Ryan O’Neal renders him devoid of any qualities that explain his rise through society – other than prettiness.
Warner Bros made the casting of a Top 10 box office star a condition of financing the film. The most recent such list came out in 1973, and feature O’Neal at No.2. It was the only time he made the grade. Clint was top, and the other males on the list were Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Charles Bronson, John Wayne and Marlon Brando. Kubrick’s pick was Redford, who turned the role down. So who was there left as an option? In those terms, O’Neal makes sense (although the absurdist in me quite likes the idea of Steve McQueen in the part), but he’s a vacuum at the centre of the film. He’s adept enough at the cruel rejection his character must display towards Maria Berenson’s Lady Lyndon, but never conveys Barry’s initial naivety nor the charisma that would have enabled him to inveigle himself into society or succeed in his criminal enterprises. The result of this is that we feel nothing for Barry for most of the film; we are indifferent to his fortunes and misfortunes. He either exposes himself as a fool or a bastard; the only moments where he is allowed sympathy are those where the story proffers it to him; at no point does O’Neal’s performance provide that. So the evidencing that Lyndon very much loves his natural son is a small grace, and the duel with Lord Bullingdon grants him a certain ambiguous nobility (but too little too late).
Indeed, Lyndon generally only appears as a remotely sympathetic character because those around him are so without merit. Right from the start, we encounter Barry with his manipulative cousin Nora. She makes him look the fool, but also exposes his petulant bravado. Leonard Rossiter’s Captain Quinn is a preening cad (Rossiter’s second film with Kubrick, following 2001); Captain Grogan is benign but motivated by money and willing to deceive; Captain Potzdorf takes Barry under his wing but this only reveals that his first judgement of Lyndon’s character was the correct one. Patrick Magee’s Chevalier, who makes Barry his partner in gambling is, like many of the supporting turns, a shot in the arm for the film, but further highlights how unappealing Barry is. It’s these characters that carry us through the first act of the film, supporting the lacklustre O’Neal. But when he marries Lady Lyndon the film is stricken with roles that don’t even hint at roguish charm or compelling motivation.
Berenson (a former model) is captivating to look at but allowed no insight. She earns her son’s disapproval for carrying on with Barry while her husband is still alive (said husband is provided a scene of hilarious venom, wonderfully delivered by a sozzled Frank Middlemass), and we find it difficult to sympathise because she seems to allow the uncaring Lyndon to walk all over her. First in his extra-marital carryings on, then in his doomed attempts to purchase a title for himself (thus throwing away much of the Lyndon fortune). Leon Vitalli’s Bullingdon has good reason to loathe Barry, but he comes across as a petulant little shit. Others, such as Barry’s mother and the Reverend Runt are as evidently acting chiefly for their own interests.
Hordern’s narrator is our only real friend, the only character in the film who is presented as of sound judgement or sympathetic personality.
Appropriately, for such a precisely made film, all the awards it received were in technical categories. It took Oscars for art direction, cinematography (John Alcott famously shot in mostly natural –and candle – light), costume design and musical score (Leonard Rosenman’s arrangements of Schubert and Handel – it is the latter’s Sarabande that forms the film’s main theme, pervading events with an aura of melancholy and inevitability). Kubrick was nominated for Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Incidentally, Brian Blessed had a role in the film, but he was cut. He was likely too BIG and BOOMING a presence.
Barry Lyndon is compelling in spite of its failings. There’s something hypnotic about the pace, and the method with which Kubrick casts his protagonist as a plaything of fate. But Ryan O’Neal’s non-performance leaves the film hungry for more sustenance, greedily consuming every supporting character that comes its way but leaving us wanting more. This isn’t a replay of 2001, where the buttoned-down performances of the actors contributed thematically to overarching ideas. Here, we wonder why the director was lured to the material in the first place and, as accomplished as the result is, whether it was worth the effort.