Sunday, 4 September 2016

Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" – Luck of the Irish – Final film on my IMDB 250 list

With a re-watch of Barry Lyndon I have reached the end of my original IMDB 250 list.  Every film watched, scored and written up.  Yay…  It’s taken a while.  Barry Lyndon is just one of many films on the list that I’ve watched several times during the project.  I guess I’ll write a separate blog post on the experience but suffice to say that it’s been highly enjoyable and I recommend it to anyone who’s got a television and five years spare to watch some great films.


He’s a funny devil, that Kubrick, what with his chess playing, his crash helmet car driving and his 150-take approach to film making.  Personally, I like and admire most of his films.  I suspect, though, that his reputation is going to take a major dive at some point, due to the way he chose to portray his female characters.  Stephen King hit the nail on the head when he said of The Shining, "Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she's basically just there to scream and be stupid."  And let’s face it, The Shining wouldn’t be the first film that sprung to mind if you started thinking about misogynism in Kubrick’s films.  There’s the single scene with a female in Dr Strangelove, conducted entirely in her bikini.  There’s the choice of Lolita as a film adaption with its disposable and intellectually dismissible nymphets.  There’s the male-gaze view of the rape in A Clockwork Orange.  Another favourite Kubrick female character is the bitch, a clever woman who delights in cruelty against men.  Only last week I commented on this role in Spartacus and the same role crops up at the start of Barry Lyndon in the form of Lyndon’s bitch cousin who takes his heart and then delights in breaking it.

Review continues below...

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One of the most enjoyable aspects of Lyndon is the photography.  The repeated technical device is a close crop of a character that then zooms back to reveal the character as a spec in a larger landscape.  And that landscape changes deliberately over the course of the film, starting with the misty mountains of raw nature in Barry’s native Ireland and moving through scenes of increasing man-made sophistication – palaces and formal gardens.  There are many scenes set up with composition and colours that remind you of old master paintings.  And there are the famous candlelit scenes, filmed with specially adapted lenses to work in low light. Even all these years later they create a unique and beautiful atmosphere.  It’s typical of Kubrick’s love of ego-driven self-publicity that these are often talked about ‘lenses developed for NASA’ etc.  Years ago, when the BBC wildlife team filmed a season on insects, they developed unique huge lenses to capture depth of field for macro filming.  They didn’t make a huge fuss about it like Kubrick, but the stories Kubrick put out about himself are reminiscent of the myth-building adopted by global superstars like Michael Jackson and Prince and, within film circles at least, have been just as successful.

Ryan O'Neal is superb as Barry Lyndon.  He stands passively, observing the cruelties of fate with his mournful eyes, then launches from time to time into episodes of ultraviolence when he feels they are required to advance his career.  I’ve never met a real-life bully with such a soulful approach to life – his silences are philosophical – but somehow the performance works.  Barry Lyndon is monster but he’s a monster who keeps the audience on board.

What about the narration?  Kubrick has taken the unreliable first-person narration from Thackeray’s source novel and turned it into a world-weary third person narration (Michael Hordern).  Some people say this narrator is still an unreliable narrator but it’s hard to find anything he says that is definitely untrue.  Often the onscreen events show more complex and nuanced motives than the moralizing, conventional narrator allows and these reflect the unreliability of a moralizing, conventional history.  We might suspect that the episode with the heartless cousin at the start of the film provides a driver for Barry’s unstoppable ambition and desire to transform himself from a ‘boy’ to a fully eligible man, but the narrator doesn’t explore this.  There is a reason that this kind of narrative is never used in modern films – the unfolding events are self-explanatory in so far as they can be explained at all.  The inclusion of the narrator in Barry Lyndon is a rather academic point about the inherent unreliability of historical narratives.  I don’t exactly want it to not be there, but it would be nice to have the option of turning it off and watching the film in a different way.

Personal Score: 8/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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