BARRY LYNDON (1975)
No-one could ever have accused Stanley Kubrick of repeating himself or resting on his laurels. After directing two of the most talked-about films of the previous few years in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, he once again simply went wherever his fascination took him, adapting his style to the subject and embracing it with an incredible focus and awe-inspiring attention to detail.
His next project was to travel from the future to the past in BARRY LYNDON. It was adapted by Kubrick from Thackeray’s bawdy novel - described as the first novel without a hero; that is to say the central character it does have is an unheroic, unrepentant social-climber. The film follows Barry (Ryan O’Neal) from the cradle to the grave as he marries coldly into money and then is separated from it and his family in a divorce settlement returning him to the life of the roguish gambler he began.
Rightfully, BARRY LYNDON is one of the most beautiful films you will ever see, but to me too little else goes on to touch the heart. The period detail, costumes and the ground-breaking advances in lighting are breathtakingly exquisite and for these alone it deserves renown; but it’s inert, an utterly gorgeous poised series of tableaux. The scenes are poses, framed and played out to re-capture images of the eighteenth century that seem incredibly authentic but you’re not led to care about the people themselves.
One of the shrewd moves Kubrick made in pre-production was to ‘innocently’ ask a favour of his home studio Warner Brothers. Could he possibly buy from them the two Mitchell BNC cameras they had in store as he simply admired their craftsmanship? They didn’t realise till later that he knew full well that this workmanship of their inner design was priceless. The cunning director then set about having his cinematographer customise one of the two cameras to fit special Zeiss 0.7 F-stop lenses (built for NASA) that would enable him to film scenes lit by only a few candles to create the remarkable Oscar-winning old world painterly realism on screen.
Ultimately BARRY LYNDON went on to a lack of critical appreciation on release (apart from in Europe where its sedate pace and sensibility was welcomed) due to the same over-emphasis on the beauty of the shot that would hamper Ridley’ Scott’s later THE DUELLISTS. Over the years it has been re-appraised as one of his greatest films, but I can’t agree, compared to the more emotional engagement coupled with (not replaced by) the spectacle of most of his other work. It’s notable that the four Academy Awards it won were all in music, costume, production design and cinematography, but nothing representative in the performances, direction or writing.
BARRY LYNDON is a strikingly lovely visual treat though and the film’s desire to try for the utmost realism of a period look is still valuable and entirely in keeping with Kubrick’s need to constantly challenge himself and surprise his audience. JAWS had just opened and transformed movie-going into the commercial blockbuster era that made art-house films an even tougher sell now. It would be another five years before a project of his came to fruition again with the more mainstream horror movie THE SHINING.