Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon is a period drama (18th Century) which tells the story of Redmond Barry. Born in Ireland to a relatively poor family, he is forced to leave the comfort of his village while still a teenager, because of a duel with a British officer over the hand of a woman. Barry first travels to Dublin, joins the British army, fights on the Continent during the 7 Years War; then through various opportunities eventually marries a very wealthy high society woman: Lady Honoria Lyndon. However, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first marriage despises Barry, and it is he who is his ultimate downfall.

I’m really surprised that I like this film so much. I don’t really go in for period dramas, and to be quite honest, nothing that exciting happens in the film. What makes the film so good is its look, style and atmosphere. Once again Kubrick has made a work of art. The film is just beautiful. Not the people, they are actually all very plain, not least Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal); but the scenery, the countryside, even the battles during the 7 years war are all stunning.

There are many occasions that the camera is focussed on a character, before it slowly withdraws revealing the glorious setting they are in. All of these wonderful vistas give real scope to the epic story unfolding. I must not forget the indoor photography either. For most of the indoor scenes, only natural light was used, and no artificial light was used for any of the indoor candle-lit shots (explains the copious use of candles in some scenes). I remember when I went to see a Stanley Kubrick exhibition in Berlin learning that he used a new technique for filming these scenes. A quick check on IMDB tells me that Kubrick used a lens designed by Zeiss (German company who make very good microscope lenses - amongst other things) for NASA which had a very large aperture and so could be used to film in low light situations. The results are magnificent, and with help from cinematographer John Alcott (who won an Academy Award for his efforts) Kubrick has delivered one of the most sumptuous films that I’ve ever seen. Actually the most dour moment of the entire film is Redmond’s marriage to Lady Honoria Lyndon.

The plot is helped along by narration by Michael Hordern, whose voice is perfect for this film and introduces quite a bit of humour. The acting is fine overall, but nothing amazing. I couldn’t really decide if Redmond Barry was always meant to be a bit distant or whether Ryan O’Neal just wasn’t that good in the role. The most memorable characters were probably Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) who looked absolutely terrified when duelling with Barry; Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) a friend from Ireland that Barry meets again in the army while in France; and the financial advisor Graham, played by Philip Stone who seems to be a favourite of Kubrick (he was a tremendously nervous Dad to Alex in Clockwork Orange).

Again the music is an integral part of the film, the main theme is Sarabande, and seems to fit almost any occasion depending on how it is played. The film is split into two parts, almost the rise and then fall of Barry Lyndon, and as such is just shy of three hours long. The story, though not exciting in the traditional sense, is interesting enough that the film doesn’t drag, and if the story doesn’t entertain, then you can always just appreciate how gorgeous the film is.