Wednesday, January 26, 2011

#29 Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

"You are a liar! You are an impostor. You are a deserter. I suspected you this morning, and your lies and folly have confirmed this to me. You pretend to carry dispatches to a British general who has been dead these ten months. You say your uncle is the British Ambassador in Berlin, with the ridiculous name of O'Grady. Now, will you join and take the bounty sir, or will you be given up? "

As I mentioned in an earlier review, Stanley Kubrick was for me one of those large, preeminent figures in filmmaking of whom I was aware of through his film, but in actuality had no idea who he was. It is truly disappointing that I was not aware of him before, because I have been extremely pleased by what films of his I have seen. One more such film can be added to that ever growing list – Barry Lyndon. This epic, an historical tale which netted Kubrick 4 Oscars, is an excellent film. Although I didn’t quite like as much as 2001: A Space Odyssey, it still has served to further engender myself to, and solidify my adoration of, Stanley Kubrick.

The film begins with a duel. The narrator tells us this is Lyndon’s father, who probably would have gone on to be a great man, but he is to be killed in a duel we are now watching, which began in a dispute over some horses. The flippancy and absurdity under which this scene begins the film sets the mood for how the entire resulting movie will present itself. After this scene, we are told that Barry’s mother vowed not to remarry, and instead decided to devote all of her time to the upbringing of her son, Redmond Barry. This point of the devotion of mothers to sons and sons to mothers, as well general treatment of women will come to be a very important point in this film. Redmond, we soon learn is absolutely besotted with his first cousin, and she likewise appears to be in love with him. It’s not to be, however, as she pursues a captain instead, one who will bring a good deal of wealth into her family. Redmond is so angry that he challenges the man to a duel, which Redmond wins. This duel turns out to be a farce, but nevertheless Redmond believes it to be a real duel, and so, on the advice of his friends, he is given all that his mother has, and flees into hiding in Dublin, beginning a journey that will take up the first half of the film. Along the way he is robbed of all of his money, and so looking for a source of income, joins the army, where is he is trained and sent to Germany to participate in the 7 Years’ War. After his first taste of war, he decides to desert, and ends up falling in with the Prussians. From there he becomes an aide, then a spy, and then a gambler. Through all of these pursuits he finds success, and over the course of a few years he manages to rise from being a poor Irish vagabond without a guinea to his name, to being part of the wealthy gentry in late-Bourbon France.

Part two of this film begins when Redmond Barry uses this newfound wealth and prestige to marry the recently widowed Lady Lyndon, a woman of considerable wealth, land. From this marriage, Redmond is able to take on the family name of Barry-Lyndon. Alongside Lady Lyndon comes her young son Lord Bullingdon. We learn very early on that Bullingdon is driven by a total adoration for his mother, and a strong resentment towards Redmond. We also learn that Redmond, having been made a skeptic to love early in his life due to the refusal by his cousin of his pronouncement of love to her, carries no interest or love for Lady Lyndon other than a desire to have a son and a desire to own the lands which she brings to the marriage. As such in part two we see Redmond as a man who is deeply disrespectful towards his wife, and goes on to squander nearly all of the wealth which Lyndon brings to the marriage. The last half hour to 45 minutes of the film consist of the final coup de grace of the downward spiral of Redmond’s life, as he loses everything which he holds dear, and everything which he had worked so hard to gain for himself. This begins when Lyndon fails in a pursuit to get ennobled, is followed by the tragic death of his son, who, aside from his mother, is the only person in his life for whom he truly cares. Finally, following an insult given to his step-son, he is defeated in a duel, resulting in the successive loss of his leg, his land, and finally his wife. A broken man, Barry Lyndon, we are told, fades into poverty and obscurity. We are left with the passing words of the Epilogue: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”

The acting in this film is decent, but on the whole I found it to be rather hit and miss. The character of Redmond, played by Ryan O’Neal, starts off very weak, especially in his delivery of lines for the first half hour of the film or so, but he gains strength as it goes along. Leonard Rossiter, who played Captain Quinn, the man who wooed away Redmond’s cousin, I thought was very good, as was Godfrey Quigley, who played Captain Grogan; the man who served as a close friend and father-figure in Redmond’s early life. Marisa Berenson was very good as Lady Lyndon; her grief following the death of her son by Redmond was strong and compelling. You really feel for her grief. I really felt these scenes were probably among the best in the film, especially for the primary characters of Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson as, especially for Redmond, you for the first time in an hour truly feel sorry for the man. You can see that his son is the one thing he truly cares about, and you really believe it. Finally, I liked the performance given by Leon Batalli, who played Lord Bullingdon. He is haughty, principled, firm in his compassion for his mother –and firmer in his resentment towards his father. The performance he gives in his final, climactic duel with his father, which ends up being rather anticlimactic, a farce of the traditional, (sort of) idyllic, stereotypical duel which starts the film.

The directing in this film is simply superb. One thing I noticed that really shined with the actors was not how they delivered their lines, but how they carried themselves while they delivered those lines. This first occurred to me when Redmond duels with Captain Quinn. You can really see Quinn’s fear. Although he appeared arrogant and affable when he first accepted the challenge, now he genuinely feared for his life, and you could see it. It’s all very subtle, and this fact quite simply made the film for me. The pacing in this film is even better. It’s very even, and though the movie comes in at a length of 3 hours, I did not find myself looking for the end. The pacing in-scene is also very good. A great example is the duel between Bullingdon and Redmond. Bullingdon gets first shot, and he is told to cock his pistol. Things happen now rather slowly, but you don’t expect anything to go awry. Suddenly you are taken from your reverie as in his nervousness he accidentally discharges his pistol. It is a great jump, and one that really added a sudden line of tension in the film. This was quickly followed up by a slow countdown for Redmond to finish off Bullingdon, but you are once again derailed from your reverie when Redmond fires into the ground shortly after the count of two. Kubrick’s play with timing and expectation like this makes for very entertaining viewing. I also like the pacing in terms of the appearance and disappearance of characters. Redmond meets and makes many friends through the course of this film, and what I find really interesting is that many of these characters wax for a period and then drift off. It’s interesting in that there’s often no event in which the characters part ways but usually the characters just drift apart until such a time as you actually forget that Redmond knew that person in the first place. This is very true of Redmond’s character in general, who sees people as means to an end; a vector through which he can get what he wants, and once they have provided their usefulness, they cease to play a part in Redmond’s life.

Another thing I very much like about this film was the flow of music. When the film begins, even during the darker moments of the exposition, the music is light, gay, and playful. Even when Redmond is being robbed of everything he owns, the music, and the tone are upbeat. He may have nothing but the shoes on his feet, but you the viewer is unconcerned. As the film progresses, the music gradually changes. At the apex of the film – the beginning of part 2 – the music is grand, sweeping, and epic, reminiscent of Redmond as a successful, prominent, and grand figure now. By the end of the film, the music is solemn, serene, and morose, reflecting the pall knell of Redmond’s life as a gentleman; his loss and failure. Just as awesome as the music is the set design and costuming; the costumes appear very authentic, and the dress in general is just gorgeous. I’ll talk more on the beautiful backgrounds and locales used in this film a little later, but just as great as these are the luxurious and ostentatious palaces and manors. The little nuances like these are what make Barry Lyndon a great film.

Finally, and most importantly, is the cinematography. I will be frank, and say that the camerawork and framing in this film is not 2001: A Space Odyssey; there isn’t that overwhelming sense of meaning, power, and scope which is contained in nearly every shot of 2001. That being said, the camerawork is still very good. I love Kubrick’s utilization of the sweeping and gorgeous landscapes which he uses as the settings for this film. But no, it is not the camerawork that distinguishes this film. Rather, it is the lighting, which this film utilizes spectacularly and revolutionarily. What is remarkable in the lighting is that, through the use of filters, Kubrick is able to film indoor shots in old buildings with nothing but natural light. This makes for very stark scenes, from images of a dull or dim room contrasted by stark shafts of light brought in by massive windows. Even better than this were the heavily darkened rooms contrasted with small amounts of light provided by candle. Not only are these scenes as stark, brilliant, and imposing as those of 2001, but they also give the viewer a real sense of just how dark (literally) things were in the days before electricity.

So the great Kubrick impresses once again. What I find remarkable about Kubrick is the incredible diversity in film. I’ve already looked at 2001: A Space Odyssey which paints a rich and vibrant space-scape, and develops a generally futuristic feel. I’ve also looked at The Shining, which is a horrifying story of a man going insane in Colorado, and now I’m looking at this: an historical film with rich period sets and characters. Not only are the topic covered varied, but they’re all done properly. If, 4 years ago you had shown me 2001: A Space Odyssey and then shown me Barry Lyndon I absolutely would not have believed they both came from the same man. I’m starting to see now why he is put up along the great directors in film history; not only is he able to make a great film, but he can repeatedly make great films, and make them across a vast array of genres, themes, and stories, and that remarkable ability takes true talent.

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