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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Barry Lyndon: A Woman's Tale

The re-release of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, alongside Paul Greengrass's Jason Bourne, is a reminder of the long shadow cast by the politics of the 1970s on cinema. The Bourne series is typical of post-Watergate films in its disgust at the unconstitutional machinations and instrumentality of the state, but wholly contemporary in its paranoia over electronic surveillance and its ambivalent attitude towards hacking. Ultimately, Bourne's is a conservative view of the world in which personal violence preserves virtue and improvisational ingenuity defeats technocracy. What links the two films, otherwise distant in time and genre, is the trope of duelling, with Bourne frequently obliged to defeat goons using little more than a rolled-up magazine or a saucepan. In Barry Lyndon, the duels are scrupulously fair in terms of weapons, but sometimes rigged or subverted by a misplaced sense of honour.

The two protagonists are also engaged in the construction of an identity. The son of poor Irish gentry, Redmond Barry adopts a variety of pseudonyms on his adventures before marriage to the wealthy and newly-widowed Countess of Lyndon enables his reinvention as Barry Lyndon. Jason Bourne famously spends most of the series struggling to discover who he actually is, which in turn means discovering how he came to be and who betrayed him (heritage and treachery, as John Le Carré made clear, are two sides of the same coin). Like Lyndon, whose father dies in the prologue, Bourne struggles with the legacy of an absent father and seeks substitutes in authority. This is less banal Freudianism and more the continued representation of the American polity as an abused and betrayed child, a self-indulgent metaphor that has helped drive the gradual infantilisation of US politics these last 40 years, culminating in the temper tantrum made flesh that is Donald Trump.

The choice of Ryan O'Neal as the anti-hero of Kubrick's film confused many reviewers in 1975, not least because of his wholesome blandness and dodgy Irish accent, but it is now clear that he embodies the USA, a state that comes into existence during the character's lifetime. Redmond Barry is (literally) an innocent abroad who gradually learns the ways of the world, from deceit and theft to hypocrisy. He is corrupted, but he is a willing accomplice in the process. In Kubrick's hands, the hero's snobbish ambition is moderated by braggadocio and a delight in the con (The Sting came out in 1973). The original novel, by William Makepeace Thackeray, was consciously antique when published in 1844 (and typically condescending towards the Irish), aping the style of Smollett and Fielding, but resolutely Victorian in its moral lesson, with the profligate Lyndon dying in Fleet Prison (the debtor's gaol)  rather than finding conjugal happiness or spiritual salvation. In Kubrick's film, obscurity and death are his (and everyone else's) lot: a democratic touch.


Though highly-stylised, the film makes clear that status is always dependent on institutionalised violence, from the horrors of Prussian soldiers "running the gauntlet" (i.e. thrashed repeatedly with ramrods) to Barry's beating of his stepson for insolence (a charge the boy has ironically levelled at a man he considers his social inferior). The duels are merely a polite representation of the violence that runs through society. This is a motif that echoes through much of Kubrick's work, from The Killing via Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket. He was fascinated by the absurdity and ritual of violence, both in the systemic lunacy of the state, famously satirised in Dr Strangelove, and the pedantic ultra-violence of the gang, as in A Clockwork Orange. In contrast, the Bourne series insists that the violence of the state is covert, even as the hero leaves a trail of highly-visible wreckage across half the world (in fact, the series routinely flirts with media exposure, from The Guardian to Wikileaks, emphasising its debt to All The Presdient's Men).

Another theme that is prominent in Barry Lyndon is exile, which obviously owed something to Kubrick's own status as an American resident in the UK since 1961. This is reflected not just in Barry's personal estrangement from home, but in the emotional exile of Lady Lyndon, played with glacial poise by Marisa Berenson under a series of increasingly chaotic hairdos that reflect her mental decline. As with any story set in the long era between the end of the religious wars of the 17th century and the coming of democracy in the 20th, the central social motif is property, expressed concretely in beautiful country houses (and beautiful women) and abstractly in the trope of an annual income whose ultimate source is a mystery. The common people are stoic and uncomplaining (even sexually accommodating), while the bourgeoisie are largely absent, though the gaming tables and set-piece duels hint at an underlying economic tension.

The inconsistency in the acting style was one of the reasons why contemporary reviewers found the film disconcerting, though this is arguably a Kubrickian signature (see the emotional restraint of the actors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which serves to emphasise the personality of HAL 2000). The innocent are affectless and artless, while the worldly and cynical furiously over-act. Leonard Rossiter's Captain Quin is a comic creation that owes much to his contemporary Rigsby in Rising Damp; Murray Melvin's Reverend Runt is a case-study in repressed emotion; Frank Middlemass's barking and choleric Sir Charles Lyndon would not be out of place in a pantomime (that's a compliment); while Steven Berkoff's Lord Ludd is a cameo raised to the level of an award-winning one-man show. Patrick Magee's Chevalier du Balibari (in Thackeray's novel he turns out to be Barry's long-lost uncle) exhibits both styles: the artifice of his makeup, which masks both his role as a spy and his sympathy for Barry, standing in contrast to his self-restraint and pre-poker poker-face (ironic in an actor known for his portrayal of madness and Beckettian angst).


Despite the lukewarm reception by critics, Barry Lyndon was hugely and immediately influential among film-makers, most notably Ridley Scott whose 1977 The Duellists was not only tonally and visually indebted to Kubrick's masterpiece but emblematically employed one of the same actors, Gay Hamilton. Less obviously, Leon Vitali's Lord Bullingdon looks like a partial inspiration for the character of Wolfie Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, in Milos Forman's Amadeus (based on Peter Shaffer's 1979 play). It is also hard to imagine films like Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) getting to the screen without the precedent of Kubrick's three-hour classic, while the views of English country houses set  to emotionally-charged classical music surely influenced Charles Sturridge's 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisted. Kubrick shouldn't be held responsible for the aristo-philia and fogey kitsch of the early 1980s, any more than the obsession with candlelight and pewter that would overtake Spitalfields, but he did anticipate the way that manners would overtake morality.

Many of the scenes were shot at the golden hour, that moment of clarity and stillness as the sun sets on a clear day. This is, of course, the bathe of nostalgia: the elegiac tone that conjures past glories and eases current regrets. In terms of its emotional register, the film repeatedly employs two major musical themes that slowly entwine around each other: Handel's stately sarabande, Suite No 4 in D Minor, and the Irish song, Women of Ireland, an 18th century poem by Peader O Doirnin (Mná na hÉireann) set to music by Sean O Riada in 1968 (the film uses the Chieftan's instrumental version). The former is insistent, dogmatic but ultimately anxious: a representation of a world heading inexorably towards the shock of 1789. The latter emphasises the real victims of Barry Lyndon's world: the women, reduced to chattels or schemers by property laws, whose best hope is to be promoted to a status object by some man.

Amidst the palatial grounds of his marital home, Barry's mother emphasises his vulnerability as the husband of a titled woman who himself lacks a title. If Lady Lyndon dies, he and his own son by her will be penniless, cast adrift (exiled once more) by his spiteful stepson who considers him a mountebank. This highlights Barry's essentially feminine role, the product of his attractiveness, which no doubt goes some way to explain the lack of sympathy many contemporary (male) critics displayed towards the character. The final irony, for a director pigeon-holed as "manly" and often accused of homoeroticising his subjects (e.g. Spartacus), is that Barry Lyndon is a surprisingly feminist film in which women are intelligent, ambitious and ultimately thwarted by thoughtless men. Compare and contrast the women in the Bourne series, who are only powerful as agents of the state. Bourne wants a daddy and the admiration of other men; Barry finally realises that he depends on women and that the respect of men is worthless.

1 comment:

  1. A very nice comparison, especially if you imagine Michael horden doing a voice over commentary for Bourne - 'Jason never knew his father ...'

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