Barry Lyndon is a powerful reflection on eighteenth century life and the fallibility of the human condition.
It has become something of a cliché to refer to Barry Lyndon as “overlooked”. For any number of reasons, Stanley Kubrick’s 1976 masterpiece appears to have escaped the general acclaim that follows many of his other films, at least outside of critical circles. Nevertheless, it remains one of my all-time favourites. Cinematography, music, and editing all combine to produce a spectacular film of unparalleled beauty. Now in its fortieth year, the picture is receiving a cinema re-release across the country. This, one hopes, will do something to redress its relative obscurity.
Barry Lyndon is often criticised as being about nothing in particular. It may be very beautiful, they say, but why should we care about Redmond Barry himself? Such arguments, however, depend on the assumption that we are supposed to care about him. But Barry’s life is not one of any real significance. Watching him drift through existence is almost a voyeuristic act; he fights battles, beds women, and cheats at cards, as if in a series of paintings, but we are never invested in his travels, nor do we understand his passions and motivations. He remains impenetrable.
This is no mistake. As we study Barry, our struggle to comprehend him prevents us from feeling either sympathy or detestation. Kubrick himself said that cinema is unique as an art form in that it provides an “objective reality”, an unvarnished vision of life, supported in Barry Lyndon by an impartial, third-person narrator. Barry’s experiences are presented at face value, which, despite great sound and fury, amount to very little. As if we are appreciating a Gainsborough portrait, what we see is what he get.
If you are able to detach yourself from grasping the central character, however, then Barry Lyndon is about a great deal. Despite its title, the film isn’t really concerned with its characters – they exist to serve a much wider narrative. Fundamentally, it is a story that hinges on conflict. The world of the film, and Barry’s life itself, is defined by conflict – of the heart, the head, and the sword. Obviously, the picture begins during the Seven Years’ War; a destructive struggle fought on a global scale, which the narrator tells us would take “a great philosopher and historian” to explain. Barry finds himself fighting for two different armies in this campaign, and he is seen to commit acts of great bravery and cowardice. If Kubrick has a central message, perhaps it is that life is too frustrating and paradoxical to be understood in broad strokes.
As soon as Barry escapes the war, the inferno of battle is repeatedly supplanted by another form of conflict. At first he is a spy for the Prussian government, before changing sides and conspiring with his intended target. Again, Barry is presented as an individual with whom allegiances are as quickly made as they are broken, a man who is never contented and always seeks another path. Ultimately, it is this internal conflict that will contribute to both his rise and his downfall.
Barry is quickly made a free man, and he uses this new volition to seek out fresh quarrels on his journey to prosperity. He competes for the affection of Lady H Lyndon, a married woman of great status and wealth. While this battle appears to have been won with the timely demise of Lady Lyndon’s husband, Barry finds a new enemy in the oedipal devotion of her son, Lord Bullingdon. It is never quite clear who is the more responsible party in this dreadful feud, but Barry, whose life has thus far been a series of struggles, is only able to fight fire with fire.
Of course, not all of Barry’s conflicts are self-afflicted. In the latter part of the film, he is set upon by a timeless and altogether less palpable enemy – class. Despite his continued efforts to rise above his station, Barry remains, as Lord Bullingdon puts it, an “Irish upstart”. He is unable to reconcile his tumultuous past with his newfound position, reaching a devastating climax as he lashes out violently, and publicly, against Bullingdon. For the assembled congregation of gentry, Barry is a discordant outsider.
For a film so rooted in conflict, it is appropriate that Barry Lyndon is bookended by two pistol duels. During the final, disastrous confrontation, many of the film’s predominant themes are exposed. Barry clearly hails from a different world to that of his opponent, Bullingdon; a world of hardship rather than privilege, and brutality rather than manners. Nevertheless, he faces the duel with more honour and courage than his high-born enemy could ever muster. As Barry fights with equal parts defiance and mercy, Bullingdon is a snivelling and pathetic sight – the premature discharge of his pistol is an unsubtle, emasculatory metaphor. Here, conflict is again used to highlight the inconsistency of the human condition.
Of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick stated that “drama is conflict”. Conflict raises Barry into the immense fortune that he desires, and conflict brings this ideal world crashing down around him. While it may be difficult to empathise with, or even to understand the film’s characters, their individual battles offer a window into eighteenth century life – its culture, its prejudices, and its hypocrisies. Not only do they seek conflict, but they inhabit a world in which conflict seeks them. Conflict propels them forward, encouraging both humanity and ruthlessness, but also stops them dead in their tracks. Put simply, Barry Lyndon is not a film about characters, but what happens to those characters. Our role is not as jurors or judges, but spectators.
For anyone interested in reading more about Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick was interviewed by Michel Ciment following the film’s release. Available here, the interview details some of Kubrick’s ideas and processes, as well as some interesting trivia about the making of the film.