Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is one of the screen’s great mysteries. It becomes more impressive each time you see it, but in a way each viewing is humbling, as you realize how far you are from really understanding it.
Most movies that audiences obsessively decipher over again and again are pictures with convoluted or twisty plots, such as Donnie Darko or Memento. Sometimes, viewers like to pour over cinema looking for allegorical meaning, as in Kubrick’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey. On my latest viewing of Barry Lyndon, I realized that the great question is: why does this movie exist? What are we to get out of this utterly unique picture? The innovative photographic techniques, in which Kubrick had a special camera built for him so he could shoot by candlelight, have been extensively discussed by others. This article will focus on something often overlooked about the film – its characters.
Almost every scene in the film is in some way related to the title character, but we only occasionally sympathise, rarely identify, and never root for him. Ryan O’Neal endows his character with psychological motivations, but Kubrick does not allow us to know what they are beyond the obvious. Yes, he wants to become rich, but for the same reasons everyone does. But why is Barry so brave at times when most of us would just quit and go home? Is it his pride? We never know, and one gets the sense that psychological motivations are not the first thing on the director’s mind.
Another fascinating aspect about the characters that multiple viewings uncover is that while Barry, his wife Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), are fully drawn psychological profiles, almost everyone else is an entertaining type played by character actors brilliantly indulging themselves for their brief time on screen. Most of the memorable moments come from these enjoyable performances, whether it is the absurdly polite highwayman Captain Feeney (Arthur O’Sullivan), a Columbo-like Prussian officer who can see through Barry’s incompetent lies (Hardy Kruger) or a lonely mother whose husband is at war and has a brief and oddly moving affair with Barry (Diana Korner).
The audiences are permitted to get involved with these supporting characters in a way we are not with the leads. Early in the film, one of Barry’s few friends is killed in a battle, and he weeps uncontrollably. O’Neal’s performance is impeccable, but the audience is left moderately surprised at his outburst instead of sharing his grief.
So why does Kubrick violate rule number one of drama – that the audience must be interested in the protagonist? I think it is because Kubrick wants us to observe 18th century European society the same way we observe Barry – with intellectual interest, but without passion. Unlike many films about historical eras, it does not judge the past as better or worse than the modern era, just different. It may have been cleaner and more beautiful, but people were just as bad as they are today.
Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s most nihilistic film, which is saying something. The director was not a religious man, but he was not a humanist, either. He had a distinctly negative view of human nature, and this theme shines through in this film. Not a single adult character is happy. Even Alex in A Clockwork Orange is permitted a few moments of joy, although usually at the expense of others.
In Barry Lyndon, the characters either try to make money or try to keep money they already have. They don’t really seem to think that this will make them happy, but they do it, perhaps because there is nothing else to do. Religion is represented by the Reverend Runt (Murray Melvin), a meek and almost emotionless pastor who dispassionately recites scripture in the same tone at weddings and funerals alike. The idea that the highest experience might be in loving others is a foreign concept. Perhaps this is why Barry’s encounter with the lonely mother is so moving – it is borne out of their dual need for warmth and companionship. Aside from her, Barry is only interested in women for their money or body or, in the case of Lady Lyndon, both.
Out of all of Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon is the most difficult on a first viewing. It is over three hours long and its uniqueness means that there is no easy frame of reference for the audience to understand its technique. But this is its strength on repeated viewings. It is so different and so original it increases your understanding of what movies might be. And if we don’t really root for the protagonist, that saves us from being depressed as we watch his downfall.