An Introduction to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)
Today would have been Stanley Kubrick’s 84th birthday. In honour of one of cinema’s most iconic, influential filmmakers, here is the text of a talk I gave earlier this year introducing what is, for me, his masterpiece – Barry Lyndon. (Note: the film was screened at Derby QUAD as part of a season about the influence of Derby painter Joseph Wright.)
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick imagined humanity’s future by looking at the cutting-edge technology of the 1960s and working out how it might develop. In his 1975 film Barry Lyndon, Kubrick gave himself what was theoretically an easier challenge. After all, William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel is set in the 18th Century, so all Kubrick had to do was look at the history books. Right?
But Kubrick didn’t think like that. Although he had amassed a huge amount of research material for a cancelled film about Napoleon, his first question was to wonder: how would somebody go about filming the 18th Century? They didn’t have cameras in those days, obviously. But they did have painters, so Kubrick studied the work of the English masters who defined the look of the period. Amongst the sources were Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and, notably, Joseph Wright of Derby.
Wright was born on Irongate, just around the corner from this cinema, in 1734 and pioneered his style in Derby. Wright was famous for his work in chiaroscuro – the deep-shadowed technique, which literally means ‘light dark,’ that was made famous by Caravaggio. Wright experimented particularly with candlelight to achieve eye-catching but intimate group portraits, and this was this style that Kubrick was interested in mimicking.
Difficult to paint, even harder to film. There didn’t exist camera lens capable of replicating the subtlety of Wright’s painting. Kubrick refused to use the ‘fill lights’ common to cinematography, because he felt it would make the locations – a variety of stately homes and castles – look artificial.
So Kubrick went to the last place you’d expect to find help: NASA. He knew from his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey that the boffins had camera technology that nobody else had seen, and he persuaded NASA to lend him three super-fast Zeiss lens, based on infra-red technology originally created by the Nazis, and then further developed for use in the Apollo moon landings to take images of the dark side of the moon.
The result was a 16-inch-long camera lens with a huge aperture to let in as much light as possible. Simply fitting the lens required rebuilding the camera from scratch. Then there was the issue of the lens’ incredibly shallow depth of field. If the actors made any obvious movements, they would go out of focus – so Kubrick ordered them to remain as still as possible. In composition as well as lighting, the film starts to look like a Joseph Wright painting.
If the camera was built to travel to the Moon, Kubrick’s film likewise treats the past as an alien world. Barry Lyndon has none of the cosy familiarity of the period dramas you see on Sunday night telly; it is a cruel, bitterly ironic world in which the people are the mercy of war, greed and jealousy. The satirical story, as Barry journeys through 18th Century society, provides almost a greatest hits of Stanley Kubrick’s themes and allows the director to take sideswipes at romantic courtship, military madness, the snobbery of class and just generally the greed that can drive a man to destroy himself in pursuit of status.
And Kubrick gets to do some things with the camera that Joseph Wright could never achieve on canvas. A still image obviously presents a fixed, romanticised view of the past, but cinema isn’t still… and especially when the film is outside, Kubrick sets up his camera to show a elaborately framed tableau, captured in close-up, but then he zooms out to show the people become ants in the landscape.
It’s a cold view of humanity, in which American star Ryan O’Neal is deliberately flat and foolish, but he’s surrounded by a wealth of grotesque, over-the-top British character acting talent, including Leonard Rossiter, Patrick Magee and the extraordinarily looking Murray Melvin, who’d played a similar role in Ken Russell’s The Devils. Watch out too for Leon Vitali, playing Barry’s grown-up stepson Lord Bullingdon. Vitali loved working for Kubrick so much that he quit acting to become the director’s personal assistant, working with him until his death and still one of the gatekeepers of Kubrick’s legacy today.
Barry Lyndon was Kubrick’s biggest ever success at the Academy Awards, winning four Oscars – but all of them were in technical categories, including cinematography. Critics and audiences alike were turned off by the apparent coldness and the sheer length of the film. It remains the best-kept secret in Kubrick’s career. Frustratingly, boxsets of his work have often ignored it, despite being made between two of his most famous, celebrated films, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. And yet, it’s a film that grows in stature; it’s now a mainstay of the renowned They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They top 100, a worldwide critics’ poll of the best films ever made.
Kubrick’s other classics are so well-known that it’s impossible to watch them without all of the parodies and tributes they’ve inspired. But Barry Lyndon still looks pure, a film that is unlike any other film. If you can surrender to its exquisite slowness, it’s an incredible experience. It’s a film not only of visual splendour but also of musical magnificence, with Kubrick creating a mix-tape of stirring 18th Century music. There’s Bach, Schubert, Mozart and Vivaldi, but mostly Handel’s Sarabande, the theme you’ll be humming when you come out of this screening in three hours’ time. And for all its alleged coldness, it’s often very funny – and finally very moving, as Barry discovers the limits of his journey from peasant to nobleman.