Barry Lyndon (1975), or The Shame Of Nobility, The Tasteless Rogue

21 07 2009

Good day, all. Hope you’re rested, because I’m about to ask you a question, and I hope you all have a semblance of an answer. Long before, in my Iron Man review,  I cited the fact that Tony was a jerk. Oh, what a jerk he was. I wanted to punch him in the face like I could make a living out of it. I took off points for that character flaw at the time because it seemingly rewarded spikiness and assholery like it was something to be proud of, and that’s just ridiculous. If I came to your house and was smarmy to your mother for about 110 minutes, you would kick me right in the dick. But if I rented the film Iron Man and watched it with your mother, I would be a good sport and a good friend, even though what we were doing in reality was celebrating dickishness in its many wondrous forms. I don’t understand it. But Stanley Kubrick knows how to tell a story about a jerk. He has shown time and time again that the jerk needs neither acceptance nor complete abhorrence. Today’s film, Barry Lyndon, is about an early 19th century jerk of the same name who learns through his foolishness a very important lesson.

Barry Lyndon’s life is a roller-coaster; a sad one at times, but we follow it to the letter. We see his youth (born Redmond Barry, to a modest Irish house), growing up without a father. We see his journey into manhood, where he falls in love with his cousin, but is dumped by her when she finds a wealthier man. After losing his cool and leaving the house, he finds himself with no options besides the army. He joins the regiment during the Seven Years War (a useless battle not signifying anything but death and disharmony) but eventually deserts (and fights for the Prussians the rest of the war!!!). After the war ends, he takes up a job under the wing of the Prussian Minister of Police. The job requires him to investigate a gambler who might be a spy. But finding that this gambler is an Irishman as well, the two hit it off and become friends! They begin roaming Europe, looking for people to con out of their hard-earned money. This works fine for a while, as two jerks are better than one, but Redmond Barry decides that he should become a man of noble means. Thus, he believes, it is high time for him to marry into a good family. He quickly seduces the young bride of a frail older husband by the name of Sir Charles Lyndon. Once the frail one passes, the stage is set for the rise of the man once known as Redmond Barry to become a man of high society. And for someone like Barry Lyndon, the fall from such a rise might just destroy him.

It sounds like a lot of story, but I really only described the first half. The film is divided into two, accounting for the two halves of Lyndon’s epic life. It’s a three-hour epic that might be one of the most EPIC epics I have ever experienced. This film packs so much in only 3 hours! By the end, I was left speechless. What an incredible film to fall beneath the cracks! You have probably never heard of this one, as it is often looked upon as Kubrick’s bastard step-child in terms of fame and box-office take, but this is really even more reason to watch it. Everyone knows about Kubrick’s mainstream genius, but watching Barry Lyndon makes one feel like the Indiana Jones of little-seen cinema.

Kubrick’s use of offbeat characters cannot be over-stressed. His magic lies particularly in the imbuing of strange and even intensely dislikable people with the voice to tell their own story. In the coven of Barry Lyndon’s selfish and repulsive heart, there is a story that needs telling. It is a hard story to hear, a tough pill to swallow, but its artistic merit far outweighs any discomfort that such a scoundrel’s presence might cause. Merely consider this; Barry Lyndon is a man of simple means; ambitious to a disgusting amount, but essentially an enterprising fellow. He wants and he wants, and he does what it takes to get it, but where is the blackness in his heart? He has no malice towards anyone. Is his ignorance and avarice the equivalent of hatred and willful violence? Refer to the moments when Lyndon attempts high-society behavior when one answers this quandary. Make no mistake, I think he’s a jerk, but his character has been too often misjudged to overlook it.

Lyndon is perhaps a dick, but at least we are not asked to adore him as we are Tony Stark.

Ryan O’ Neal plays the eponymous dick. “What a strange choice for a lead”, I first thought, but he nails it. He has the look of a rogue about him! He carries himself with an air of aimless desire, that look that melts the hearts of Countesses and Ladies alike. It makes him feel authentic, and in a period piece, that’s half the battle. His petulant attitude makes me hate him in the worst way, especially how he sneers all his lines (my favorite; “I’m not sorry. And I’ll not apologize. And I’d as soon go to Dublin as to hell.”) Others in the cast, such as the ravishing Marisa Berenson as the luscious Lady Lyndon and Marie Kean as Barry’s long-suffering mother, are very admirable, but they are merely pawns for the biggest star of the film, Stanley Kubrick. Never appearing in a single scene, he somehow becomes the most compelling character. He’s like the Howard Hughes of cinema; a reclusive genius who could never be understood by any other means than by creating mammoth works of art that defied easy explanation through the simple use of words. So just watching his love letters to the world, his wonderful filmography, is an experience that makes it difficult to look beyond him to see other individuals.

With fantastic art direction, a powerful story about mens’ motives and consciences, and a strong cast, Barry Lyndon is the classic that should have been. It’s not a fun, breezy view, but it’s an intensely satisfying trek through an 18th century that feels and looks incredibly vibrant and new. There’s a lot to see here, and a lot to experience. It’s a labor of love, the kind you don’t see too often anymore, and I appreciate the love Kubrick put into this. I give Barry Lyndon 9 1/2 Prussian-Irish Lords out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I take on my pal M. Night with his “interesting” flick, The Happening!

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