[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a film in which the expected always happens—but usually in quite an unexpected way, much as a detail in a painting will surprise and delight, regardless of the ordinariness of its context. The world of Barry Lyndon, first of all, is not the 18th-century Europe of historical reality; it is the 18th-century Europe of Art—of the literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, costume, and design of the period. That’s as it should be for a film from a picaresque novel about a rudely reared, would-be gentleman’s striving after the elegance befitting what he feels to be his rightful station. And it’s as it should be for Kubrick, whose preference for the realm of art and ideas over that of natural, historical, quotidian reality is evident, and whose cinematic studies of Manipulated Man, even at their rawest, have always been couched in idealistic terms: tidy sets, tidy costumes, tidy makeup, and tight, impeccably composed shots. I’ve never seen quite so many absolutely symmetrical frame compositions in such a short time as during the running of Barry Lyndon; and no form-for-form’s-sake, either—the symmetry of individual shots and of montage directly reflects the symmetry of the story of Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall.
As good big films should be, Barry Lyndon is a world unto itself: fascinating and precise, with room for taste, elegance, suspense, action, humor, compassion, and insight. Most of all, it is a film of—and about—beauty. As beauty has a certain timelessness about it, so, too, do Kubrick’s shots in Barry Lyndon. Indeed, the film is remarkably consistent with the style and atmosphere of a picaresque novel: Within a shot, as within a well-wrought literary sentence, time stands still, or is even stretched. But between shots, as between sentences, minutes or years may flash by. Kubrick has structured Barry Lyndon in classic narrative style, to the point that the space between sequences, bridged by Michael Hordern’s smooth narration, fairly invites one to imagine a title: “Chapter the Fourth, In Which Our Hero…” Because of the unusual duration of many of the shots, camera movement is slow and intermittent, tending to correct and adjust a still point of view rather than take us into the action of the film and its characters. Tracking shots are so infrequent that when they do occur, we are almost physically startled. But we always remain outside, and the film, even when it meets us on the most agreeable and inviting terms, does so only within the context of reaffirming that basic outsideness.
My favorite example of Kubrick’s alternation, in Barry Lyndon, of fluid with frozen time and of fulfilled anticipation with subverted expectation is the sequence in which Barry first approaches Lady Lyndon. Kubrick crosscuts as they eye each other across a gaming-table, curious, tentative, under the watchful eye of her chaplain. At last she tells the chaplain she is going out for air, rises, and leaves the scene. We’ve seen this a hundred times before: Barry and the chaplain will exchange glances, and Barry will get up and follow the lady out. But the chaplain does not look—significantly, suspiciously, or at all—at Barry. And Barry himself just sits there. Finally Kubrick cuts away from the gaming table altogether, to a profile of Lady Lyndon outside the palace, still as a statue in the blue of the evening. Though we didn’t see him get up to follow her outside, our faith that Barry will join her remains unshaken; so we wait. And Lady Lyndon waits. But she faces confidently away from the palace, while we eagerly seek the space behind her, at screen left, for some sign of our hero’s approach. We pick up a pair of French doors and watch them. We’ve seen this before: he’ll come out of the background as she stays motionless before us. But time and the lady continue to stand still. Finally we see—or do I only imagine?—a figure pass by one set of French doors, headed toward the other. Now we’re ready. We lick our lips. And Kubrick cuts away again, abruptly presents us with a close shot of Barry already entering the frame—from screen-left, as we expected, but much closer to us and the lady than he could possibly have got during the time since that form passed the doors. Our expectation demands that Barry be there, and Kubrick’s awareness of that anticipation puts Barry there. But how he does it—ah! that’s what makes Barry Lyndon so eminently worth watching.
Screenplay and direction: Stanley Kubrick, after the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Cinematography: John Alcott. Production design: Ken Adam. Editing: Tony Lawson. Music: Irish traditional music plus works by Bach, Frederick the Great, Handel, Mozart, Paisiello, Schubert and Vivaldi, arranged by Leonard Rosenman. Production: Kubrick.
The players: Ryan O’Neal and, in order of appearance, Gay Hamilton, Marie Kean, Leonard Rossiter, Godfrey Quigley, Diana Koerner, Hardy Kruger, Patrick Magee, Marisa Berenson, Leon Vitali, Steven Berkoff; Michael Hordern (narrator).
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow