R: Barry Lyndon, the Fable and the Truth

Barry Lyndon (1975) fits in some respects to the genre of costume drama or heritage film. Stanley Kubrick, however, did not aim to sing his praises of British Empire, and Barry proves to be rather a critical and ironic evaluation of the genre. The film fascinates and confuses by its stillness, detached point of view and voice-over that seems to be strangely out of the place. These techniques serve to put the narrative of the film in question and expose the artificiality of popular storytelling showing that no fable can weather the hardship of reality. Imposing this status of invented story on the film, Kubrick denies its credibility. He also leaves the essential, real and sincere things out of the plot. This attitude requires our consideration, because it signifies different approach to narrative and takes the film from the sphere of costume drama and middlebrow culture to the one of an experimental art.

Heritage cinema appeared during the years after the World War II as the image of Britain’s prosperity and wealth that people tried to recall in the post-war anxiety. The films take place in the period of the growing British Empire, either in rural settings or the high class society mansions, displaying what constituted the national identity and roots. The architecture, costumes and landscape do not serve merely as a background but as a source of the patriotic pleasure. Heritage films often adapt novels by British writers, typically Jane Austen, or Emily Brontë and build its tension around the strong emotions. The leading character could be a woman, often smart and well educated. The films concentrated on the themes of marriage, love and family and attracted female audience coming from the newly established middle-class. Avoiding both the high intellectual art form and Hollywood mass production, heritage films constituted important part of the middlebrow culture.

In many respects, Kubrick’s film maintains the conventions of costume drama. Barry comes from Ireland. Although he wanders about the Europe he retains certain distinctively British qualities in his manners and remains strongly attached to his home country, where he longs to return. His encounter with the Chevalier de Balibari, an Irish spy, reveals his patriotism, when Barry betrays the Prussian police, for which he works, because of the sympathy for Chevalier, his countryman. The Seven Years’ War evokes the idea of Britain’s power and victory. The residence of Lyndon’s family and the landscape in most of the exterior shots provide the images of sheer beauty. Also the original story comes from the novel by W. M. Thackeray. The traces of the genre remain obvious in Barry Lyndon. However, other aspects twist this notion.

Architecture in Barry Lyndon

Architecture in Barry Lyndon

Mainly the ambiguity and impenetrability of the characters makes the film hard to grasp. The film rarely shows Barry’s emotions and when it does, it takes them out of context or the narrator comments them questionably. Women have very little space in the story. Only Nora Brady, Barry’s cousin, appears at the beginning of the film as a character with a will and impact on the plot. Lischen, and Lady Lyndon, later Barry’s loves, do not initiate any action and remain silent most of the time. The narrative seems to conceal them as well as Barry’s thoughts and feelings. The film has rather masculine attitude that restrains the story and keep its essential parts hidden from us.

Lot of the estrangement comes from the visual style. Shots in Barry Lyndon have its own peculiar visage because of their composition similar to paintings, and the use of zoom. Typically, the camera zooms out from a little detail until we can see vast scenery of a British landscape. Characters often become lost in the picture or they take part in a larger composition, very consciously arranged to several planes along the conventional rules of painting. Trees or other objects often frame the action that takes place in the centre or in the golden ratio, excluding the off screen space from our minds and creating the feeling of wholeness of the picture. Zoom that Kubrick uses does not change the perspective and since the movement inside the shots often stays very limited, the scenes remain still and passive and the illusion of a painting stands out. The use of wide-angle lens and a deep space in the picture takes us away from the action. Moreover, the peculiar style of shots puts the medium of a painting between us and what we see. We become very much aware of the artificiality of each shot. The film does not show the events in a way they probably appeared in reality, but arranges them consciously as the painter does for his picture. Aesthetics of the composition seems to be more important than the credibility of the scene.

The painterly composition

The painterly composition

The voice over narrative arouses similar problems. Mark Crispin Miller suggests that the narrator completely lacks any reliability because of his superficial view. Commenting Barry’s reasons for confession to Chevalier de Balibari, the narrator only mentions his homesickness and the admiration of Balibari’s splendour and manners, whereas the real motivation lies in Barry’s need of a father figure. Miller also mentions Barry’s encounter with Lischen that conceals its intimacy behind several theatrical scenes.1 The narrator, however, never openly lies and stays considerably precise – Michael Klein finds him ‘often reliable’.2 The voice-over reveals its purpose only when we consider its tone.

The narrator simplifies ‘it would require a great philosopher and historian to explain the causes of the famous Seven Years’ War’, generalizes ‘no lad who has liberated for the first time and twenty guineas in his pocket is very sad’ and uses expressions like ‘to make a long story short’ and ‘Drama of [Barry’s] life’.3 These allude to the popular kind of storytelling that does not concern about a great depth of the events, but makes them rather enjoyable. The narrator tells the tale about Barry, a young hero, who travels and meets the challenges of the adventurous life, similar to Gulliver or Tom Thumb. His first love, escape from the British service and the honouring by the Prussian army, his career of a gambler and conquering the heart of Lady Lyndon make one great adventure. This account of Barry’s life sounds similar to the stories he tells to the Captain Potzdorf, pretending he is a British officer, or to his son in the bed. In the second half of the film the story shifts to the family drama and the narrator searches for every moment that can arouse the dramatic tensions between the characters in a close family circle. The voice-over does not lie but modifies the events for the sake of narrative pleasure in a same way the painterly compositions modify the appearance of events to aestheticize them.

The narrator occupies the place between us and the story. He knows how Barry’s life ended, cites the obituary of Sir Charles Lyndon from the St. James’ chronicle and evaluates the outcomes of the war from a historical point of view. But he does not belong to our time either, because his narrative is outdated. Thomas Allen Nelson claims that the narrator belongs to the story as a character ‘confined within the temporal frame of the film’.4 His tale seems too simplified, and unbelievable to be appealing today or in 70’s when Kubrick wrote it. It falls into the times when an adventure story and a family drama had its place in a popular literature. Sarah Kozloff correctly notes that the ‘reason, morality’ and the ‘kin[d], yet incessantly ironic’ tone sound exactly like Thackeray. She says that ‘the extremes of emotion implied by the mise-en-scène and the music are out of [narrator’s] province’5. He does not venture to explain the complicated psychology of the characters, because of the storytelling conventions of his era. The narrator coming from the 19th century frames and mediates the story in exactly the same way as the medium of painting.

The visual and narrative style of Barry Lyndon makes us question the credibility of the story, or at least the way the film shows and tells it. We cannot be sure that Barry’s duel with the Captain Quinn, or his first meeting with Lady Lyndon looked, in the fictive reality of the story, the same way as we see it. The visual and narrative style emphasizes the beauty and effect so much that we do not believe the action. In key moments the aestheticized fiction shatters when it faces the reality. Barry cannot tell the story to his dying son, his lies do not save him from Prussian captivity, and his politeness does not bring him any attention of the high society after the public attack upon Lord Bullingdon. Although these scenes retain the questionable style of the film, they provide the examples of the deceptive illusion applicable to the whole story. Because of the unreliability of the narrative techniques, any action conceived as simple and sincere has to occur off-screen. Barry’s intimate relationship with Lischen, friendship with Balibari or the love of Lady Lyndon, for which she probably forgave Barry his affairs, seem to have no evidence in the plot. The film implies these emotions only by hints, because otherwise they would become as implausible as the rest of the film. Remaining unseen, they allow our imagination to create them perfectly genuine.

Uncertain value of the picture

Uncertain value of the picture

Kubrick questions the old storytelling strategies by exaggerating them to the point, when they seems separated from the story itself and even obscuring it. His narrative techniques use the conventions of 18th and 19th century paintings and literature to put them under a critical view. Some of them appear in a contemporary film as well, for example the golden ratio in composition. Others, such as slow static descriptive narration, went out of fashion. All these conventions, however, share the aspect of improbability that, although acceptable in itself, infers with the notion of passionate unquestioned patriotism, and the strong suspension of disbelief aimed for in a sphere of middlebrow culture. If the story becomes uncertain because of these techniques, so does the idea of national pride. The artificiality of the film does not represent the splendour of Britain’s golden era in very good light, and so the purpose of heritage film remains incomplete.

The story’s most intense and genuine moments confide themselves to the privacy of unseen space. By concealing the valuable information Kubrick invents his own narrative method, teasing our imagination with allusions to the hidden relations and events. Story conveyed in this way cannot, however, aspire to the position among the middlebrow costume dramas and much more inclines to the experimental art film.

Barry Lyndon takes the genre of costume drama as an initial point. It uses the old narrative techniques, as if appropriate to the story, but in odds with the contemporary ones.  He creates the tension between the action and the way the film tells it, and this tension evokes our disbelief. In several scenes the film admits the inadequacy of the story aimed at the spectacle and effect, and this becomes the critique of Barry Lyndon itself. The film cannot fulfil the intentions of heritage film genre, because it questions its own credibility. The elusive ambiguous narrative that finally emerges from these strategies has rather an experimental feel.

  1. Mark Crispin Miller, ‘Anti Reading of Luck of Barry Lyndon’, Modern Language Notes, 91 (1976), p. 1360-1379.
  2. Michael Klein, ‘Narrative and Discourse in Kubrick’s Modern Tragedy’, in The English Novel and the Movies, ed. by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981), pp. 95-106.
  3. Barry Lyndon, dir. by Stanley Kubrick (Warner Bros., 1975)
  4. Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 170-171.
  5. Sarah Kozloff, Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 123-125.

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s site.


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