The eighth entry in my series, Stanley Kubrick – A Year of Masterpieces.
Barry Lyndon is one of Stanley Kubrick’s most overlooked films. Cinephiles and casual fans alike are quick to list a dozen other Kubrick films as a favorite before even considering this film – if they even care for it at all. But, if one is to judge by the magnitude of the artistry, Barry Lyndon may be Kubrick’s greatest triumph. His intention with the film is crystal clear: to approach the “period piece” with the respect that it deserves, both in terms of accurate storytelling and through aesthetically appropriate cinematographic techniques. The result is a resounding expression of the power of cinema, as Kubrick positively transports us into the world of Mr. Redmond Barry.
Part I: Storytelling
At just over 3 hours long, Barry Lyndon is a sprawling and patient period piece, replete with pastoral beauty and languid activity. Kubrick’s mastery is on display throughout, with the method of his storytelling just as important as the actual story. Here, we’ll look at three separate techniques used by Kubrick in the telling of Barry Lyndon, all of which contribute to his overall goal of transporting the audience to the 18th century: an omniscient third-person narration, patient pacing, and the genre of the “character study”.
The Narrator of Barry Lyndon is unique in all of Kubrick. He is the only omniscient narrator that comments on the proceedings through the entirety of the film. Kubrick’s narrators are usually either first-person and biased (Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Humpert from Lolita), brief introductions to the story in the third person in the style of a news report (Paths of Glory), or incredibly fallible (The Killing). In Barry Lyndon, the Narrator is omniscient, trustworthy, and can be seen as a confidant. This is in contrast with the narration of the novel, where Redmond Barry provides unreliable first-person narration. Kubrick explains the choice to switch narration styles:
“In a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray’s first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen. It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry’s version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don’t think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy.”
So, instead of juxtaposition, Kubrick means for the Narrator to support the action on screen with parenthetical explanations, emotional revelation, and proper context, lending the audience a more-thorough understanding of Barry’s world.
The organization of Barry Lyndon is also very much like an 18th century novel. It is episodic, broken into distinct chapters within two large parts: BY WHAT MEANS REDMOND BARRY ACQUIRED THE STYLE AND TITLE OF BARRY LYNDON (A Big Rise) and CONTAINING AN ACCOUNT OF THE MISFORTUNES AND DIASTERS WHICH BEFELL BARRY LYNDON (A Slow Fall). These title cards are not exactly subtle, but they are expressed in highly stylistic language, overly formal and explanatory, again an indication of the time period.
Another major storytelling choice in Barry Lyndon involves the pace. More than any other single aspect, Kubrick’s choice to slow the film down to a glacial pace is responsible for transporting the viewer into the experience and the mindset of the time period. Every choice is made to ensure that this transportation is complete. Things move slower here, and there is time to consider each character, each scene, each camera movement. It is a common complaint that Barry Lyndon is too slow, too dull, too sprawling and lengthy. Welcome to the 18th Century, and welcome to the life of Mr. Redmond Barry.
For though Barry Lyndon is easily classified as a “Period Piece”, this is only one part of the genre. One can set a mystery or drama or action film during a specific period in the past – they’re all still “period pieces”. The true genre of this story is the character study, and the character under study is Redmond Barry.
Barry is a man who wants to better himself and improve his station in life, but he harbors a critical contradiction that will undermine him. That contradiction is realized in the sphere of 18th century high society, a world where nobility of birth and gentlemanly status is sacrosanct. Barry wishes to subvert this system, to game it and ascend to the heights of society by loophole. And yet, once he gets there he wastes countless riches in an attempt to legitimize himself with a real title (not just the assumed title of the Countess Lyndon). This is the source of Barry’s tragedy – he can’t exploit an unjust system while simultaneously enjoying its benefits. So, he tumbles.
But still, Barry’s journey is universal. He is born into a life without pomp, fanfare, or privilege, without the status of the “gentleman”. His initial romance with his cousin Nora is a microcosm of his experience. It’s genuine and tender (at least from his perspective), but wilts in the face of a “real suitor” – the gentleman John Quin. Now, Barry is a nuisance, so his family is quick to send him on his way into the world, where he will bounce from station to station, a feather in the wind.
He takes advantage of things as they come, but he also succumbs to misfortune, naivete, and/or stupidity. Some of his successes are manipulations and deceit, but some are expressions of immense honesty and valor. Some of his victories are through blind luck, but others are pure intelligence and skill. Redmond Barry is like any of us – grabbing the good things that show up, fumbling some opportunities, and scratching for dear life through whatever randomness comes.
Barry’s story is our story. Kubrick’s decision to tell it through an archaic and omniscient narrator, in the episodic style of a novel, and in the genre of the character study has the effect of transporting the audience into the time period and the mindset of a person who inhabits it. In addition, this relaxed and almost archaic approach to storytelling can be seen in Kubrick’s dogged pursuit of a more naturalistic cinematography.
Part II: Cinematography
Through naturalistic lighting (and the appropriate cameras), Kubrick captures some astounding sets, costumes, and locations. But it isn’t just what a camera captures (the subject) – it is how it captures it (the style). In Barry Lyndon, he makes extensive use of two shot techniques, each of which strengthens the pastoral experience begun with the storytelling. First, we notice the wide static establishing shots. Even more powerful are the extreme zoom out shots. As a result, we’re further transported into the world of Redmond Barry.
The technological hurdles that Stanley Kubrick cleared to shoot Barry Lyndon almost entirely with natural light (sun and candles) are the stuff of cinematic legend. Though many shots are aided by electrical lights in an ancillary fashion, it is obvious that the governing aesthetic of the film is to convey a world before electricity. Thus, Kubrick went to great lengths to make all of the light natural – or at least appear so. Thus, though large lights were used to help with some of the lighting of the larger draw rooms, Kubrick softened them with heavy curtains, giving them them the feel of a strong sun.
And then there’s the candles. The interior night scenes are all shot with natural candlelight and nothing else. If that doesn’t sound impressive to you, do yourself a favor: turn off all your electric lights, set flame to a few candles, and try to take a selfie without the flash. I’ll wait. Even still photography can be difficult in these conditions, so once the subject starts moving, all cinematographic Hell breaks loose. To solve this problem, Kubrick used lenses developed by NASA for photography in space, and retrofitted them to his cameras. Everything needed to be custom-designed to fit these lenses to the task, but as a still photographer by training, Kubrick always knew exactly what modifications to make.
Okay, so what’s the point? Camera nerds can obsess over gigantic apertures and minute f-stops to their hearts’ content (and they have; entire books have been written about Kubrick’s lenses), but why does this technological achievement matter artistically? It matters because the marriage of style and subject contains the essence of art. Kubrick’s intention is to transport the viewer into the 18th century. As such, it is woefully inappropriate to front-light his actors with 400-Watt bulbs. It looks fake and we know it, if only subconsciously. To convey the huddled intimacy necessitated by candlelight, he finds the appropriate equipment and then forces his own shots to work under these conditions. The result is sublime – a period piece that feels more like a moving painting than a moving picture.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Kubrick focused his camera on spellbinding locations, costumes, and set designs. These are all extra ways to ease the audience into their trip to the 18th century. Of the four Oscars won by Barry Lyndon, half were in this realm (Art Direction and Costume Design; the others were additional stylistic aspects that conveyed the time period: Cinematography and Musical Score). Scene after scene of this film feels like it belongs to another time. Sometimes, it is a zoom-out on stolid figures revealing a vast landscape. Other times is is a chamber scene. Regardless, the verisimilitude of the costumes and sets forces the viewer into the perception of 18th century high society. Watching Barry Lyndon, how can abstain from feeling a part of this world?
Then, Kubrick displays unique brilliance with his constant use of two specific shots: large, static establishing shots, and the extreme zoom out. The establishing shots are practically self-explanatory: we see wide expanses of pristine terrain, sometimes with a key location or figure. These serve to key us in on the context, on the world we’re watching.
But Kubrick’s other stylistic technique takes it to another level. He starts with a close shot on some key item, like the guns for for the duel between Barry and John Quin. Then, the camera slowly zooms out. As the figures move very little (or not at all), the camera adopts all the movement, slowly zooming out to reveal the context around the initial focus: the duelists, their seconds, and the gorgeous Irish countryside surrounding this professed fight to the death. Again and again Kubrick will employ this technique, transforming the specific and the singular into the environmental and the universal. This idea is echoed in Barry himself – though his plight is his own, there are pieces of him in each of us.
We’ll see this cinematic technique throughout Barry Lyndon. Kubrick means to meld the particular with the comprehensive, and show how the details of our lives eventually tally up towards the totality. It is an absolutely masterful blending of style and theme, using the movement and focus of the camera to convey the meaning behind the film itself: though there are specific calamities and challenges that fall before us, in the end they all add up to something that everyone can understand – a life. And at the end of that life, there is no judgment that matters.
Part III: Themes
Kubrick’s major themes in Barry Lyndon focus on humanity, life, and destiny. The main idea is the concept of the self-made man, represented by Redmond Barry. But, Kubrick also pays homage to the potential for destruction that comes along with blazing one’s own path. And, as we’ve mentioned before, at the heart of this story is a key contradiction, that Barry can’t simultaneously game the system and expect to benefit from it free of consequence. All of these ideas can be combined into the comprehensive statement of Barry Lyndon: in the end, a person’s life is the sum of many parts – some good, some bad, all made equal by the passage of time.
The most obvious theme in terms of the narrative is the idea of climbing up the social ladder. Barry begins life as a low-born boy, and is constantly reminded of that fact. His tryst with Nora is a joke to her, and he is bested by John Quin at every turn (except the duel, which was a ploy anyway). Regardless, Barry struggles upwards. He joins the army, defects, joins another army, saves his captain’s life, becomes a spy, becomes a counter-spy, then makes money as a gambler, which \ introduces him to the Countess Lyndon, from which he finally gains his gentlemanly status. Of course, this is only the halfway point of his story. The rise is important – it shows Barry’s desire for a good life. But his inability to hold on to his prize is equally important: it shows that his successes are fleeting.
For Barry must navigate the highest class of society, and he is merely a Scottish Brute. This is not meant as offense – many of his rougher qualities uniquely position him to succeed. But, we can also see the uncultured edges of Mr. Redmond Barry costing him dearly throughout the second part of the story. He is a philanderer, quick to drink and anger, and he can’t discipline his son in the least. Here, Kubrick is showing that the reasons for Barry’s successes are going to lead to his failures – a cruel paradox that has echoes of the idea that Barry can’t subvert the rules of his society while simultaneously relying upon those same rules to protect him.
And that’s where the duels come in. Throughout the film, Barry always succeeds in the duels, a clear sign of his skill. Though the duel with Quin is a sham, Barry’s shot still lands. He is able to defeat a much larger man in a fist fight, and best a welcher in a sword fight. These victories mark his skill, and it should be noted that Barry didn’t actually fail in his duel with Lord Bullingdon – he pitied the boy, a sentiment that was exploited by the young Lord. Is this a moment of weakness for Barry? That’s hard to say. He certainly doesn’t like Bullingdon. Indeed, the man was as responsible for Barry’s failure to obtain a title as any other single man in the world. One could say that Barry should relish the opportunity to best this man in a duel. And yet, when offered that free shot on a man vomiting from terror, Barry fires into the ground, and loses it all when Bullingdon does not return the favor.
The epilogue offers Kubrick’s final stance. There were rises and falls, triumphs and failures, valor and treachery. Barry was a man intent on improving his station in life, social structure and class systems be damned. Lady Lyndon loved him, though perhaps against her better judgment. And Lord Bullingdon was a sniveling momma’s boy who couldn’t stand this “common opportunist” taking over his family fortune. But, as Kubrick points out, they’re all equal now. The world he has shown us – and the people within it – no longer exist.
It has been a wonderful trip, with one of the greatest visual storytellers as our guide.
Everything about Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is calculated, from the slow pacing to the cinematography to the picturesque shots. It’s all to entice minds beholden to the 20th and 21st century to stop, slow down, and consider a more pastoral and patient time. Kubrick transports us into a world different from our own, but one with the same timeless ideas about ambition and advancement, fate and destiny, fortune and choice. It is a masterful expression of the power of cinema to show us other worlds.