Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The rise and fall of Redmond Barry

Another of my occasional attempts to blend film criticism with theological reflection.

I used to enjoy Stanley Kubrick's 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon as primarily a sublime exercise in style, but on further viewings I've come to see it as much more. Beyond its high-gloss facade is one of the truest depictions of the human predicament ever put on film. I've also come to have a revised view of the title character. Now that I'm a bit older and hopefully wiser I can empathize with Barry, while still being repelled by his ways. Redmond Barry (later to become Barry Lyndon) is a gambler and a cheat, a liar and a womanizer, a relentless social climber and opportunist. In modern parlance he's a hustler. In Pauline theological parlance he's a man living according to the desires of the flesh.

But he's also a doting father, and none could accuse Redmond of cowardice. One has to admire the moxie of this Irishman! He provides a striking example of noble characteristics living side-by-side with baser instincts. What a piece of work is a man! His courage is displayed in the climactic duel sequence where the representative of the titled aristocracy that Barry so longs to be a part of is revealed as a sniveling coward. From the beginning Redmond's dominant aspiration has been to live the life of a gentleman. Here on the downslope of his career he displays some true gentlemanly virtues even as the gentlemanly life of wealth and leisure slips away.

Perhaps the best that can be said of Mr. Redmond Barry of Barryville is that he has a mother who stands by him through thick and thin. She has an invincible belief in her son, and it's from her that he seems to have inherited his native shrewdness (not to be confused here with wisdom). And then there's the regally beautiful Lady Lyndon. Despite his unfaithfulness and dissipation of her "good family fortune" she too loves him to the end even as she signs the papers that will send him out of her life -- and out of England -- forever.

The reason why it's easy to miss the humanity beneath the surface of Barry Lyndon is because the surface is astonishingly beautiful. Scenes are composed with painterly precision. Keen observers marvel at the technical achievements of Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott. When the camera lenses of the day couldn't capture the candle-lit quality of 18th-century drawing rooms they invented new ones. Kubrick's legendary attention to detail is evident in every frame. There's simply not another picture like it.

Barry Lyndon is borne along by droll narration and pastoral music by the likes of Mozart and Schubert. When the surface calm is broken, as in the eruption of violence between Barry and his stepson, it's as disturbing as anything in Kubrick's previous or later work. All the parts are perfectly cast. Even bland Ryan O'Neal shines as Barry. I know many critics disagree, but I find more to admire in his performance each time I see it. Kubrick knew exactly what he wanted out of his actors and exactly how to get it.

There are many twists and turns in Barry's story, but all one needs to know about the plot is spelled out in the title cards that introduce the two halves of the three-hour-long film (taken, I assume, from the Thackeray novel on which the film is based).

Part I: By what means Redmond Barry acquired the style and title of Barry Lyndon
Part II: Containing an account of the misfortunes and disasters which befell Barry Lyndon

There you have it. Not an original story I'll grant you. Only the names and details change. From Qoheloth to Shakespeare to Kubrick all is vanity. Just before the closing credits roll there's a third title card -- an epilogue -- which reads: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now." Ha!

Was this the last word for Stanley Kubrick? Death as the great leveller, and nothing beyond that to redeem human folly? One would think so in light of films like The Killing, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. Believers in the Christian gospel declare that death isn't the last word, that in Christ the futility built in to the fabric of the universe is being unraveled. I'm one of those believers, but Kubrick's pessimistic vision still resonates. Rarely has the futility of human striving been driven home as effectively as it is in Barry Lyndon. Is Barry's rise and fall a tragedy or a comedy? I think the latter, though it's the kind you laugh at through tears. For truth be told there's a little Redmond Barry in all of us.

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