There’s a theme shared by both Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In both films we see humans dwarfed by their surroundings, by the immensity of space and mechanical artifice in 2001, and that of rural landscapes and immense interior spaces in Barry Lyndon. Director Stanley Kubrick seems to be telling us something about our place in the world at odds with our sense of self-importance, that our moods and concerns and loves are transient and unimportant when seen against the reality of time and space. Barry Lyndon reinforces this theme with a stark epilogue at the end of its long three-hour running time, a brutal piece of text that reads – “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” How typical of Kubrick; instead of Love Conquers All, rather Death Conquers All, making all our efforts and gains redundant, almost utterly dismissing any importance to the films events or the characters we have just shared those hours with. Life is cruel, and it seems, quite pointless. The point Kubrick seems to making in this Historical drama, is that this is true of every era, of every people; everything that seems important and permanent is in fact temporary and will fade away. As will our own world, our own civilization. In the true scale of things, nothing means anything.
In Barry Lyndon, humanity seems to be losing something already-in conforming to social norms, marriage, religion, the individual is being swept up by the rules being formed by the world around him. Society and convention is everything- when Redmond Barry is robbed by a bandit, both robber and victim behave with impeccable politeness. This society of 18th Century Europe has a structure all its own and the behaviour of humans within it obviously seems odd to us today, but it certainly looks and feels authentic as it claws towards the man-made artifice of our Modern Age and the Lunar city of 2001. Marriage is already something of a cold arrangement; there doesn’t seem to be any love or passion, just a ritual expected of the society that witnesses the highly formal proceedings. Redmond Barry of course gets married for the wealth and lifestyle he will gain- Lady Lyndon perhaps hoping to replace her late much-older invalid husband with a dasher, younger, more romantic husband. Both are to be disappointed- Barry never really gets accepted by the high society he aspires to, and Lady Lyndon never seems to receive the passion she desires. Kubrick is not commenting on anything (and herein lies the root of the ‘coldness’ of his films) but rather reporting it; as if he were a documentary-maker with a time machine. Just as we observe (but hardly root for) the astronauts in 2001, in Barry Lyndon we watch people of the 18th Century with a cool reserve. Kubrick never asks us to root for Redmond Barry, indeed, he portrays him as a vain and selfish character who is rather deceitful and unlikeable. And of course, its all for nothing anyway; the very society and ornate landscapes of Barry’s world is doomed to fade like all those before and after it.
For all the coldness of its central theme, it cannot be denied that Barry Lyndon is a ravishingly beautiful film; indeed, one of the most beautifully-shot films you are ever likely to see. Even the scenes of war and battle are beautiful to behold. Its a remarkable achievement, particularly so as this gorgeous cinematography is all in-camera. Films these days have their image altered in post to a huge degree; the image is essentially a lie, as the image can be brightened, darkened, contrast boosted, hues shifted, and individual areas, objects, everything, can be tweaked now in the computer to achieve the ‘look’ a director is after. The Final Cut of Blade Runner for instance often looks markedly different to the original films release, and many Blu-ray releases of catalogue films are greeted with consternation (see my post regards The Good the Bad and the Ugly a few weeks back).
With Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was clearly pushing film about as far as it could go. In order to appropriate the ‘look’ of 18th century oil paintings of the period, Kubrick endeavoured to shoot as much as possible in natural light (typically during the Golden Hour later so favoured by Terrence Malick), and in particular, even during the candle-lit interior scenes. This was something considered impossible at the time, but Kubrick had a plan. Famously, Kubrick appropriated some old disused BNC cameras from Warner that were once utilised for the out-dated rear projection process, because they were the only cameras that could be adapted for a huge Zeiss lens designed by NASA for satellite photography which Kubrick knew he needed to achieve his aims. Cinematographer Ed Di Guilo said “… it’s an extremely fast lens. It’s an f0.7 which is two stops faster than lenses that are even available today. Of course Stanely’s intention for these lenses was to shoot the famous candlelit scenes in Barry Lyndon. That being the case, he shot with the lenses wide open, f0.7. The consequence of that, he had practically no depth of field at all. It was quite a chore to do it, but of course the images were absolutely gorgeous.”
One of the ironies of Barry Lyndon is that with all this beauty, the rather simple plot (the Rise and Fall of an Everyman), cannot measure up, is simply dwarfed by comparison, and this inevitably was an easy target for critics, who often attacked what they saw as a vacuous plot lost in a picture-book movie. Here was a criticism later used on the early films of Ridley Scott, and perhaps there with some justification, but with Barry Lyndon its rather an unfair criticism that misses the point of the movie. Yes, it is beautiful, and yes, the characters and their rather mundane concerns are lost in all that gorgeous scenery, but all deliberately so. Kubrick has made an Historical drama that tells us something. The humans are indeed small (often literally so, in the framing of many of the shots),and are indeed leading pointless lives dominated by the social customs of their time, and no, we don’t particularly care for any of them. But that’s point of the film. We will suffer the same fate as that which we are viewing; we are viewing us, our world, ultimately equally as archaic and obsolete as the 18th Century recreated here. History will inevitably sweep everything away, all the wars and schemes and lies will all be for nothing. Barry Lyndon is a glimpse of how we will seem to those of centuries to come.