BARRY LYNDON: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1975) Criterion Collection
Stanley Kubrick was to step away from film-making after the release of A Clockwork Orange (1971), arguably, his most daring cinematic excursion. His follow-up, almost four years later would prove, if not as unnerving to both critics and audiences (as A Clockwork Orange’s oft’ perverse depictions of abject violence and state-sanctioned brainwashing had unsettled and incited demonstrations that threatened to exile Kubrick from Britain), then equally as unsatisfying to its backers, if only for reasons neither of Kubrick’s making or justifiably made under any critique of its artistic merit. Indeed, Barry Lyndon (1975) would emerge as a most fascinating revisionist take on the ole-time Hollywood costume epic; Kubrick’s inevitable challenges in bringing William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel to the screen becoming his all-consuming passion. When Kubrick took to task any project, even if one did not concur with the results, it was impossible not to admire both his fastidiousness and attentions paid to every last detail.
The all-absorbent purity of Kubrick’s fixation with Barry Lyndon is revealed in virtually every frame of its storytelling. From the picaresque passion of its determined title character (Ryan O’Neal, never better) to John Alcott’s absolutely stunning use of natural light and candle-lit interiors to achieve a genuinely haunting Vermeer quality throughout, Barry Lyndon is a masterclass in elegant picture-making with an undercurrent of disturbing social critique for which Kubrick in his prime was always noted, but today – at last, is justly revered. Kubrick became a film-maker almost by accident, bringing to bear his keen photographer’s eye on the art of ‘the flickers’ after having seen one too many ‘bad’ movies at his local picture palace. “I don't know a goddamn thing about movies,” Kubrick would suggest, “…but I know I can make a better film than that!” Hollywood took notice of Kubrick’s stylistic departures too, and from the mid-fifties to 1964 he steadily built a reputation for unusual-looking movies. A Kubrick classic is anchored more keenly by the evolution of character than plot and occasionally, more heavily still invested in a total departure into a mind-boggling array of visual design, veering dangerously beyond, though never quite over the edge of artistic integrity.
An intricate character study of a rake's progress, Barry Lyndon is perhaps Kubrick’s most methodical and stylishly surreal spectacle; its attention to period detail, virtually unsurpassed. Based on Thackeray's sprawling novel, the film is, in many ways, a throwback to the grandiose big-budget historical epics in vogue throughout the late fifties and early sixties. After 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick became preoccupied with making a film about Napoleon. Alas, the like-minded launch of producer, Dino De Laurentis, Waterloo (1970) and its thought-numbing implosion at the box office, coupled with the ‘closer to home’ outrage and backlash from A Clockwork Orange caused Kubrick's financial backers to renege on their previously agreed financing of such a project. In a twinkling, Kubrick’s bankability had evaporated. Incensed but unable to find new funding, Kubrick had turned his attentions to A Clockwork Orange. Then, in 1972, he fell in love with Thackeray's Vanity Fair, a book not made into a movie since 1933’s disastrous Becky Sharp. Timing again was off, with the BBC beating Kubrick to the punch, producing a television series based on Thackeray's masterwork. At this point, Kubrick took solace in another Thackeray novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon. In retrospect, it is easy to see why.
Like most of Kubrick's filmic heroes, this novel's protagonist is tragically flawed; a young man whose aspirations for wealth and power bring utter ruination to everything he touches and ends up destroying him. Kubrick always possessed an affinity, not just for the proverbial underdog but characters that willfully help to foster their own demise. Now, arguably, he came to Thackeray's novel third best, or perhaps, more accurately, thrice removed. Although the resulting film would bear Kubrick’s hallmark for meticulous planning and craftsmanship, increasingly there developed a queer stylistic disconnect. Barry Lyndon feels very much like a movie of the seventies instead of one timelessly set in 1844. The fault is not entirely Kubrick’s; although his casting of Ryan O’Neal has something to do with it. O’Neal had made a stunning success of Love Story (1970); the quintessential ‘doomed’ story of young idealism derailed by tragedy. He followed this with the even more ambitious period drama, Paper Moon (1973) – costarring opposite his prepubescent daughter, Tatum (who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance). Both movies established Ryan O’Neal as an unlikely heartthrob of the decade. Alas, the titular eponymous rake in Thackeray’s novel is hardly appealing. Indeed, he is one of the most disreputable, amoral and enterprising figures in all classic literature. Thackeray had blunted the impact of these wicked ways by presenting the story from Barry’s perspective; Lyndon, oft confused, chagrined and cut to the quick by more devious minds than his own. Thus, at intervals he became something of a foppish figure in the book, to be pitied, but also, on occasion empathized with as merely, instinctually misguided.
The screenplay by Kubrick follows the novel's trajectory closely – unusual for Kubrick and in hindsight, perhaps too closely for Kubrick’s liking with one major caveat. Thackeray tells his tale from Barry’s perspective with an underlay of ribald humor. Kubrick elected instead to provide the picture with a detached narrator, expunging virtually all of the glibness and subtle farce in the original storytelling. “I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting,” Kubrick would later explain, “Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry's view of his life. This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, 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.”
It's 1844 and Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is our picaresque Irish rake. His father has been killed in a duel leaving Barry's mother (Marie Kean) devoted to her son's upbringing. During his youth, Barry is tempted into an illicit affair with his cousin, Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton); a ruthless spider who goads his lust until a well-borne English Captain, John Quinn (Leonard Rossiter) proposes marriage. Unable to reconcile his spurned feelings for Nora, Barry demands satisfaction from Quinn in a duel. The game, however, is rigged. Although Barry shoots Quinn in the chest, the gun's ammunition has been switched to mere tow. Quinn, a coward at heart, fakes his own death forcing Barry into exile in Dublin. Regrettably, Barry is held up by a highwayman (Arthur O'Sullivan) along the open road. Penniless, he is forced to join the British Army. There, an old friend of the family, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) informs Barry that Quinn not only survived the duel but has since married Nora.
Barry's regiment is sent to fight the Seven Year's War where Grogan is fatally wounded in a skirmish with the French. His life once again unbearable, Barry decides to steal an officer's uniform and a horse and become a deserter. En route to Holland he encounters Prussian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger) who sees through his disguise and enlists him in the Prussian Army instead. Barry saves Potzdorf's life after another battle and is given a commission in the Prussian Police as his reward. His first assignment is to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee); a professional gambler who is suspected of embezzlement and cheating. Instead, Barry becomes the Chevalier's friend. They escape Holland together and travel the finer spas all over Europe, profiting handsomely by their wicked manipulation of the cards. But Barry's one fascination in life - to become a gentleman - has yet to be fulfilled.
To this end, Barry seduces the wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) under the watchful eye of her elderly and ailing husband, Sir Charles (Frank Middlemass). After Sir Charles' death, Barry marries the Countess and takes her last name for his own. The couple settle in England where Barry's first attempts to ingratiate himself as a stepfather to the Countess ten year old son, Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage) are an unmitigated disaster. The child despises Barry, who proves to live down these low expectations by wantonly spending the Countess's money and eventually becoming unfaithful to her in their marriage with multiple lovers. Barry comes to his senses and realizes how much he loves his wife. The Countess forgives him and gives birth to their only son, Bryan Patrick (David Morley); a loving and affectionate child whom the adult Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) equally comes to loathe. On his seventh birthday, Bryan falls from the horse made a gift to him by his father and is trampled to death. Now Barry's mother advises her son to cultivate an acquaintance with the influential Lord Wendover (Andre Morell), obtaining a nobleman’s title to protect himself from financial ruin. Seeing the purpose of this alliance, Lord Bullingdon publicly assaults Barry's reputation at a concert with accusations he is a debaucher and a deceiver.
Unable to control his wrath, Barry beats and attempts to strangle his stepson in front of the crowd. He is barely restrained, branded a social pariah and loses all of his friendships with Lord Wendover and others in high-standing. Fearing the Countess' spiritual advisor, Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin) is plotting with Lord Bullingdon to dissolve Barry's marriage; Barry's mother dismisses Runt from court. Upon hearing the news, Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel. However, Lord Bullingdon's gun misfires, providing Barry with the opportunity he has been waiting for: to kill his ungrateful stepson. Instead, Barry honorably chooses to spoil his shot. With relish, Lord Bullingdon takes another at Barry, his musket shattering Barry's knee cap. He loses his leg from the knee down as a result. While Barry is convalescing, Bullingdon takes over all the financial concerns of his late father's estate, granting Barry an annuity of 500 guineas for life - if he ends his marriage to the Countess and leaves England forever. Demoralized and ailing, a reluctant Barry accepts the offer.
Barry Lyndon is sumptuous entertainment, buoyed by John Alcott's striking cinematography - shot using natural and candle light. This extols the breathtaking splendors of the Irish countryside (subbing in for England, Holland and the rest of Europe). Ken Adams and Roy Walker's Art Direction is first rate. Unlike other costume epics, the world created for Barry Lyndon looks resplendent, but always lived in. Kubrick's casting choices are interesting, though not entirely successful. A former fashion model, Marisa Berenson is undeniably beautiful. But she lacks any sort of genuine presence to live and breathe as the tragic countess. Rarely does Berenson defy the window-dressing of her former profession or Milena Canonero’s lavish costumes. These, in fact, dwarf her limited acting attributes under a mountain of fine woolens and lace. As such, Berenson utterly fails to elicit anything more than a few quiet sighs from her more ardent male admirers.
Ryan O'Neal fares far better; despite his 70’s soft-hewn handsomeness at odds with the vintage rugged masculinity required of Thackeray's antihero. Alas, there is little evolution to O'Neal's technique for creating this character as the story progresses. Although his makeup and hair ripen, his acting remains stolidly mired by the illusion of his own public persona as a seventies heartthrob. At times, O'Neal looks painfully uncomfortable and equally as unconvincing in his period wigs and costumes. This, however, bodes well for the character of Barry Lyndon, a man never entirely comfortable in his own skin and always in search of new and diverting ways to escape it; a fool’s quest, doomed to folly – if never regret. When it was released Barry Lyndon was not a commercial success, although it fared better in Europe than America. Critics decried Kubrick’s aloof and distant approach to the narrative. In point of fact, the audience is never invited into these lives on anything more than a superficial level. Kubrick keeps us purposely at a distance. The scenes unfold with imperial elegance and are painterly in their execution, yet extraordinarily static. Kubrick's stylized approach does not harm the story per say and neither does his excruciatingly deliberate pace.
Mercifully, the public’s estimation of Barry Lyndon has morphed with time; restrained and dutiful admiration gradually seasoning into a more genuine friendliness teetering on the brink of love. What was once mis-perceived as Kubrick’s clinical style, self-conscious and tediously paced has become all the more the enveloping excursion Kubrick, and indeed, Warner Bros. had hoped for back in 1975. No one could ever fault Kubrick’s technical prowess. It had taken 300 days to shoot Barry Lyndon; exteriors in Ireland (substituting for England) and interiors at the gargantuan 18th century manor, Powerscourt House (tragically destroyed by fire mere months after Kubrick had wrapped up production). Kubrick and Alcott would also trot around the English and Scottish countryside with a brief departure to Germany, making very good use of Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Huntington, Moorestown and Waterford castles, Corsham Court and Petworth, and, Wilton House, Dunrobin, and, Dublin Castle, Ludwigsburg Palace near Stuttgart and Frederick the Great's Neues Palais at Potsdam near Berlin. We are all observers to Kubrick’s painterly sophistication here. Perhaps ashamed by their lack of understanding, but able to at least acknowledge something quite exhilarating and out of the ordinary had occurred, AMPASS bestowed upon Barry Lyndon 4 Oscars for Best Art Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Cinematography (John Alcott), Costume Design (Milena Canonero, Ulla-Britt Söderlund) and Musical Score (Leonard Rosenman, adapting Handel and Schubert). Although Kubrick received 3 nominations (for Best Adapted Screenplay, Director and Picture) he was thrice bested by One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Despite Barry Lyndon’s tepid box office, Kubrick’s reputation, as both a perfectionist and auteur remained untainted. Indeed, once again, he had illustrated a verve for innovation in technique. Barry Lyndon is oft cited as a picture shot entirely under natural lighting conditions – especially candlelight – employing ultra-fast 50mm lenses with a huge aperture. These were developed by Carl Zeiss for NASA’s Apollo moon landings. Although problematic to mount, the lenses were extensively modified by Cinema Products Corp. to gain a wider angle of view, with input from optics expert, Richard Vetter at Todd-AO, and, with special modifications to its rotating camera shutter, thus recreating the huddle and glow of the pre-electrical age. And while many sequences were photographed by cinematographer, John Alcott under such conditions the bulk of Barry Lyndon was, in fact, shot with the luxuries of conventional lenses and electrical lighting, tweaked to mimic natural light and diffused through gauze and/or heavy panes of glass. Viewed from today’s increasingly frenetic storytelling pace, Barry Lyndon is even more distortedly Kubrick’s vision of a Thackeray-esque moving tableau; one gigantic, magnificent tapestry embroidered with Kubrick’s master strokes of visual genius; also, a certain flair for picking at the scabs of society, as well as those naïve enough to believe they can sway the system from the inside and in their favor. The virtues in Kubrick’s approach to the story are far removed from the decade in which the picture was conceived. They are all but foreign to the way movies are pre-processed, assembled and force-fed via mass marketing to the public now. In hindsight, Kubrick has exquisitely captured the cadence in Thackeray’s world. When all other aspects of the production fail to gel, though never all at once, Kubrick's overriding vision here allows Barry Lyndon to achieve a visual greatness, untainted by the pall of its other occasionally questionable artistic failings.
Criterion’s reissue of Barry Lyndon on Blu-ray is derived from a brand new 4K scan and restoration of the original 35mm camera negative. Fans will be elated to discover the movie has, at last, been framed in its original 1.66:1 ratio. Warner Bros. previous 2011 bare-bones release was recomposed at 1.78:1, presumably, because Kubrick would have ‘wanted it’ that way. Aside: one sincerely hopes the day will arrive when Barry Lyndon is released in true 4K. For now, this 1080p reincarnation suffices; illustrating all the subtle nuances of Kubrick and Alcott’s hard won original vision. Barry Lyndon’s color palette is not eye-popping, rather highly refined and extremely subtly nuanced. A smattering of film grain is a definite compliment and, by comparison, the aforementioned disc now appears to have been ever so slightly artificial scrubbed. Criterion has restored the movie’s original mono mix in PCM. Also included is the 2011 remastered 5.1 DTS stereo. I have to say, despite being a purist for such things, I actually prefer the 5.1 to the mono; Warner having taken great pains to remix this soundtrack to achieve optimal clarity and, of course, better spatial separation between music and effects. No mono track can compete with that! But would Kubrick have approved? Hmmm.
The most rewarding part of this re-issue is the extras: a myriad of insight culled from longtime collaborators, unseen vintage material, and rare audio clips featuring Kubrick talking about his work. All of these goodies are housed on a separate disc and all of them are in 1080p! Yipee! We get almost 2 hours of bonus material beginning with Making “Barry Lyndon”, Achieving Perfection, Timing and Tension, Drama in Detail, Balancing Every Sound, On the Costumes, Passion and Reason, A Cinematic Canvas, plus 2 theatrical trailers. These digital extras offer a comprehensive look into Kubrick’s collaborative process as well as a look at the 18th century painters from whom he drew his visual inspiration. Finally, there are detailed liner notes by critic, Geoffrey O’Brian and a pair of pieces reproduced from March 1976’s American Cinematographer. Bottom line: Criterion’s edition of Barry Lyndon is the real deal. One would sincerely hope Kubrick’s other masterpieces receive as deserving a tribute. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)