Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 May 2006

Another Novel Without a Hero or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Barry Lyndon

I am in love with Barry Lyndon. I have been waiting on watching this 1975 film from the great auteur Stanley Kubrick for years (I believe I even have it on videotape somewhere, recorded one night off of Turner Classic Movies.) Mostly, I've been held back by its length and the warnings I'd received about its slow pace, but this morning I answered the call and promise of its costumes and cinematography and succumbed to the charm of the work of Kubrick, Ryan O'Neal (the film's star) and William Makepeace Thackeray who wrote the novel. The story is powerful and resonant, with as much of an understanding of human nature and the consequences of greed as Thackeray's other very-famous novel, Vanity Fair, and its course follows a similar trajectory to that book. Redmond Barry (O'Neal) is a young Irishman deeply in love with his cousin, who is engaged to be married to an officer in the British army. Barry, a most headstrong young man, challenges the officer to a duel (there are several in the film, of many varieties), kills him, and must run, immediately, from the law. This first fifteen minutes of the film, sets Barry on a course of wandering all over Europe. Through an endless series of coincidences and mistakes, he joins the British army and then the Prussian army, becomes an agent and spy in the service of the Prussian military police, and subsequently finds himself a valet to a very wealthy cosmopolitan Irish gambler, eventually marrying into wealth and an English title.
The film is unquestionably long (185 minutes), but I found it extremely rewarding, emotionally sincere and politically astute. Add to this that Barry Lyndon is, I think, the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The costumes, by Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Søderlund are stunningly gorgeous, covering the military forces of England, Sweden and Prussia and dressing all of the nobility of England and France. It's really something to behold. But the true find of Barry Lyndon, for me, is John Alcott's cinematography. I really don't think I've ever seen anything so beautiful put on celluloid. Barry Lyndon had me from its very first shot: a wide view of a duel that never zooms in and gives us all the backstory we need on Barry's father in the first 45 seconds of the film. From then on, the film is absolutely filled with breathtaking vistas and lush panoramas of the European countryside, never venturing once into the interior of a dirt-ridden city. At one point early in the film, when Barry heads off to Dublin, I thought for sure I had seen the last of Alcott's beautiful compositions, but luck stepped in and (thankfully) sent Barry and me in a different direction than the city. The infinite variations of sky that Alcott is able to capture with his camera boggle the mind. His interiors, while less breathtaking, still contain an other-worldly feel to them. They are all lit by the candlelight of the period and the photography is warm and inviting. The photography is so powerful that at times my heart ached at its beauty.
Kubrick lost the Academy awards for directing and writing that year to Miloš Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but Bary Lyndon's costume designers, art directors, cinematographer and composer were all rewarded on Oscar night with little gold men for their work and any other result would have been unthinkable. The story and acting in the film are wonderful, but it is the look of the film that makes Barry Lyndon an absolute masterpiece.