Sumptuous, breathtaking, gorgeous, are words that have been used lately to describe Kubrick’s film of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, made in 1975 between A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, and now digitally restored and showing nationwide. And they’re all true. Watching the film is a sensual feast for the eyes and ears, however bitter the message of that sharpest, most unsentimental Victorian novelist. It recounts the picaresque doings of Barry Lyndon, a character in whom we can hardly ever invest much sympathy. Those who have criticised Ryan O’Neill for a rather blank performance just don’t get it. He’s spot-on. The man is an enigma, whose pudden face (O’Neill doesn’t even look pretty any more) is unfathomable, an almost postmodern figure whom we can observe but are not invited to understand. Devoted son, foolish lover, bolshie soldier, turncoat, cynical gambler, icily cruel husband, violent stepfather, and then all the way round back to vulnerability as a deeply devoted father, like Rob Tichener he’s an utter bastard as a family man, but he does truly love his son.
It’s a life punctuated and determined by three duels, that formalised and insane way of settling disputes that itself embodies the cold and distancing qualities we pick up from much British 18th century art, and which Kubrick triumphantly brings to the screen. Walk through the 18th century rooms of the National Gallery and it’s all there, from Gainsborough’s impossibly coiffeured women, the whitened faces and the ‘patches’, the luxurious landscapes stretching away beyond their smug owners, the huge polished interiors of palaces and Hogarth’s shadowy gaming houses – there’s even the echo of Whistlejacket and his knowing eyes in Barry’s son’s rearing horse. Kubrick, along with the staggering talent of cinematographer John Alcott, brings these to us so powerfully that there’s practically no sense of the 1970 when it was made, only of the 18th century – if not of how it actually was, then of our idea of it. The look is infinitely intensified by a haunting soundtrack of Baroque music, and above all Handel, whose stately and sombre Sarabande paces out the moments of what is what would now be called ‘Slow Cinema’.
It’s not as if nothing happens – we follow Barry through a life of adventuring from rustic Ireland through Europe into stately country houses, brothels and battlefields – here a salutary reminder that sending men out to march into almost certain death in a hail of bullets and calling it a battle wasn’t anything new in 1914. But the inexorable passing of time where scenes that are almost tableaux open out to a landscape or a candle-lit interior of people moving into a languid action conveys a stifling sense of the weight of existence. All the more powerful are the moments of sudden intense action, usually prompted by rage. Even the speech is – not stilted exactly, but as measured as the camera work, and as the music, all of a piece.
As well as Ryan O’Neill making himself un-charming for the part, other cast members are perfectly chosen. Marisa Berenson always did passive suffering well, and here one can only wonder at the research into make-up and wigs which made her so perfectly resemble those society ladies who gaze out of contemporary portraits at us. Murray Melvin’s pointy, puckered face is perfect as a disapproving, fawning clergyman, and Patrick Magee with his unnerving tones and gaunt face, so whitened that it looks on the brink of decay, as an unscrupulous fraudster, couldn’t be better. But it’s the finesse of the film that comes back to you, the sense of being in a truly alien world. These people are not like us, except that they’re doomed, just like us, by mortality.
Seen at nft London August 2016