The Underrated masterpiece
Much has been said over the years about Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, and though most people tend to go for his Hallmark movies like Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and especially, 2001: A Space Odyssey, most viewers or even followers of his body of work, tend to forget about his most underrated movie, and, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful films ever made. It’s not overselling it when I say that, along with 2001, this is quite possibly his most striking film from a purely visual perspective.
Back in 1973, and after the release and political backlash of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick had begun working on a film about Napoleon, which later had to be abandoned due to the release and consequent financial failure of a film with a very similar subject matter: Serguei Bondarchuck’s Waterloo. Given that Kubrick had done a massive amount of research on the 18th Century, he decided he might as well use it for another movie that took place in the same time period. Having read a lot of classical literature, he turned his attention to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but found after reading it, that the cinematographic format would be most unsuitable to adapt the material faithfully and that it might be more appropriate to do it like a serial. He then turned his attention to another one of Thackeray’s books, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, one of his most unknown novels and a book that had hardly been reprinted since the 18th Century. This book, Kubrick felt, would be the ideal material for his new movie. He then started looking for the best film crew members in the business to help him realize his vision. First off, he contacted Production Designer Ken Adam, with whom he had worked previously in Dr Strangelove, who after a very strenuous working relationship during the filming of that movie, was reluctant to come back in his employ. Ken Adam, at first, recommended a friend of his for the job, but after an unsuccessful attempt by Kubrick of employing the man, he asked Adam once again, who reluctantly accepted and was the main architect in convincing Kubrick that the movie had to be shot in location rather than in Studio, which would later prove to come with its own set of problems.
Location scouting and shooting in Ireland and first hiccups.
The decision was made really early on to go shoot in Ireland, as it would be the most picturesque of places in terms of landscapes to do it. The crew took over the entire top floor of the Ard Rí Hotel in Waterford and rented from the local Volkswagen dealership 8 minibuses, 8 cars, 8 vans and 4 saloon cars. Kubrick used his entire crew, as well as his daughter, to go scouting for locations. They were given a page each from the script each morning and sent separately on their various scouting assignments. They, most often than not, would get into difficulty, from a logistical point of view, due to the stubbornness of Kubrick of visiting or shooting in some places that, given the rough nature of the terrain were almost impossible to navigate through. The crew also drew from the local talent to assist in the costume design, hair dressing and to act as extras. Kubrick also recruited the services of the local militia to use them as soldiers in all the battle scenes. Some local musical talent was also recruited to provide folklore music for the dancing sequences. It was during this period, whilst scouting for locations and due to the ever changing decisions made by Kubrick about where to shoot, that Production Designer Ken Adam suffered a nervous breakdown that would cause him to retire from the production. His psychiatrist strongly advised him to abandon the production and that his working relationship with Kubrick was proving to be toxic for his mental health. After a few weeks, he got better; although the constant stream of phone calls from Kubrick inquiring after his health, did not help.
With the shooting back on schedule, the photography would prove to be one more bump on the road of what was becoming a fairly problematic shoot.
The photography of the movie would become the single most challenging aspect of the entire filmmaking process.
Lighting problems and IRA threats.
After the decision was made to shoot in location, Kubrick decided that he wanted to shoot the entire movie, interior and exterior shots, with natural light, without the aid of artificial light sources. This would prove to be quite challenging due to the very nature of shooting outdoors with the ever changing weather conditions and the limited capabilities of the Camera set ups available back in the day. In order to achieve this, the cameras were outfitted with a special Zeiss lens that had originally been designed for NASA for outer space photography. The retrofitting process was difficult and shots, especially for at night and indoor scenes, only lit by hundreds and hundreds of candles, would be the trickier ones. The Zeiss lens had an aperture system that, given the natural light provided at any given time of the day, would require the lens to be opened up or closed down accordingly. This and the use of 18th Century paintings by author William Hogarth, as a reference for framing, would give the movie its unique live painting quality. And it would be rewarded with an Oscar for Best Photography by John Alcott.
Shooting went as smoothly as it could, given the conditions and the character of who was behind the camera, when another problem arose that would force Kubrick and his production crew to abandon Ireland overnight. Trouble had been brewing for a while in Northern Ireland with the IRA, and some threats had been directed at the crew and especially Kubrick, who decided to move production to England and Germany,where the rest of the movie would be finished. And that would be the end of their Irish adventure.
Casting choices had always been polemical, to say the least, when it came to Stanley Kubrick. None more so than when he elected Ryan O’Neal to portray the main character in Barry Lyndon. His apparently lack of on-screen charisma and limited dramatic range wouldn’t put him on the top of the list to portray a character with such a remarkable dramatic arc. The way Kubrick chose to tell his story, though, in such a detached manner as to not make you relate to any of the characters on an emotional level, made him, in my opinion, the actor best suited to play the part ,and a decision that Kubrick fiercely defended when asked about it. To play the part of Lady Lyndon, he chose Marisa Berenson, a former Vogue model and an actress with limited on -screen experience, that given her limited amount of dialogue scenes and her natural beauty, proved to be another smart decision on Kubrick’s part. But what really proved to be the breakthrough performance of the entire film was the selection of Leon Vitali, to play the troubled and emotionally dependant Lord Bullingdon, son of Charles and Lady Lyndon. He would later become Kubrick’s assistant and forego his acting career. The rest of the cast was completed with the appearance of most of Kubrick’s recurring cast members.
For the soundtrack of the movie, Kubrick decided to use pieces of classical music by Handel and Schubert and all this was arranged by composer Leonard Rosenman, who won an Oscar for his efforts. The explanation by Kubrick of deciding not to use an original soundtrack was that, for him, having all these wonderful compositions available to him and which so well represented what he musically wanted to convey in the movie, he couldn’t possibly envision himself using other material than this. That was a commonplace practice throughout his career and the use of an original soundtrack was mostly a rare occurrence.
Financial and critical reception
The movie was, unfortunately, not the financial success Warner Bros was hoping for in the United States, but it faired much better in the Europen market.
From a critical point of view, the movie was received coldly in most critical circles; critics at the time failing to see through the undisputable technical merits of the movie and brushing it off as another glacial exercise on style by Kubrick with no emotional warmth to it. Most of the same critics who would later, over the years, come to appreciate the film for its artistic and, not only technical achievements, and regard it as one of the most important movies ever made in their list of best movies in Cinema History.
Granted the movie is not something that is for everyone. Its slow pace and duration probably put off a lot of people back in the day. This is not to say that it’s a film in which nothing much happens. Quite the contrary. Over a running time of over 3 hours we are witness to all the changes experienced by its main character ,but, as good or bad as these experiences may be, and with the aid of an improbable third person narration coupled with the cold and detached manner in which Kubrick chose to tell the story, we watch those changes rather than feel them along with Barry. And it’s a storytelling tool that Kubrick had every intention of using. We’re not supposed to feel any sympathy for a character in whose dramatic development Chance plays a main role. This is something that is summed up perfectly on the film’s poster art work; what we understand to be the lower half of Barry’s body holding a pistol in his hand and stepping on a Rose with his left foot. All of this conveys precisely the main narrative of the film; the pistol signifying the three Duels throughout his life that will determine his destiny, and the Rose that signifies the beauty in his life that will inevitably be destroyed by his own hand. It’s a tale of Chance and its consequences. Examples of this are peppered throughout the movie; in various scenes during the movie we see our main protagonist playing cards, each of which are there to show us a particular development in the character; from naivety and love at the very beginning of the movie, to unscrupulous behaviour halfway through the story, to utter resignation and defeat at the very end. The movie is filled with “what ifs”in the development of the story. Had the character not been orphaned as such a young age, had he not fallen in love with the wrong woman….And in all of this, the PISTOL, signifying the Three Duels in the movie, that will play a significant part in his story. The painting- like framing in the movie with its constant zoom out shots, are there to, not only establish the character’s surroundings, but to also show us that he’s just part, and sometimes a tiny part, of his surroundings. He’s just a cog in the machinery of his own life. He, ultimately, has no control over it. Everything has been left to chance and his fruitless attempts to belong to a High Society, in which, due to his low social stature by birth, has no chance of being a part of, are doomed to failure. The movie begs repeated viewing to catch all the nuances, but it’s well worth your time.
What we’re left with it’s one of the most beautiful looking movies ever made with gorgeous Production and Costume Design, superb Photography, marvellous soundtrack and the expert guiding hand of one the best directors who ever lived.
The movie has gone through several home media iterations over the years; from VHS to Laserdisc, DVD and, ultimately Bluray. Given the love and care with which the Kubrick Estate has treated the different remastering processes over the years, it’s no surprise that the movie has always looked the best it possibly could. The biggest change to the home media presentation of the movie came about in the early 2000s with the new remaster for DVD in both picture and especially sound. The movie was given a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mix that would later be upgraded to a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 for the Bluray. Despite what many purist might say, this new sound mix proves to be a massive improvement over the original Monoaural Sound for both the VHS and later on, the Laserdisc. Dialogues are clearer and the music is rendered beautifully in all channels. It’s predominantly a front heavy mix, being as it is a dialogue heavy movie. There’s not much surround activity for the battle scenes, though the existence of a LFE channel gives these more oomph in the bass department. A clear improvement and the best the movie has ever sounded. As for picture quality, the way to go is the Bluray. Contrary to the Laserdisc and DVD, the colours in this transfer pop out more, there’s definitly more detail in close up shots and mid to wide range shots, more nuances in clothing and faces; although this movie having been shot the way it was, with the predominant use of natural light, the image is always going to look a tad soft, but this is definitively the best way to watch it.
So that concludes my comment on Barry Lyndon. If you’re familiar with Kubrick’s filmography, but haven’t checked this one out yet, definitively do. And even if you’re not into Kubrick movies, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once.
Until next time and thanks for reading.