Written by Tilly Price.
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a lesser well known, but great example of period drama film nonetheless.
Barry Lyndon is a story of the rise and fall of a single man who manipulates and tricks his way to the top of the British aristocracy in the 18th century. Initially, we are drawn to his determinedly rebellious nature but quickly feel tricked as he becomes as arrogant and cruel as the upper classes he loathed at the start. We get everything you could possibly want from a period drama: combat, gun duels, gambling, debauchery, romance, and tragedy all performed in beautiful costumes in beautiful locations. The journey of one man is made exciting and gripping by guiding narration and twists throughout – I was genuinely gripped both times I watched it.
Even the film’s production causes intrigue. It was filmed predominantly in Ireland, though the production was moved to an English stately home after an infamous IRA threat. The film was shot in over 300 days – living up to Kubrick’s reputation for being incredibly particular. Myths and tales of the production of Barry Lyndon dominate discussions of the film. Actors describe difficult and, at points borderline, exploitative conditions with the crew reporting numerous mental breakdowns throughout the process.
Marisa Berenson who plays Lady Honoria was on call for three months in Ireland but didn’t make it to set once due to torrential rain and other technical mishaps. She was instructed to stay out of the sun prior to production to be accurately pale for a woman of her character’s class and was refused a trip home for Christmas. Despite this, Berenson herself speaks fondly of Kubrick and her experience on Barry Lyndon describing him as a ‘perfectionist’, as with other great directors she had worked with previously.
The accuracy and perfection that Kubrick insisted on, led to the film’s captivating and award-winning look. His perfectionism warrants praise in relation to the lighting, particularly the moments shot in candlelight that could only be captured by an incredibly sensitive and custom-designed 50mm f/0.7 Zeiss lens originally developed by NASA for satellite photography. The whole camera had to be rebuilt to be able to hold the lens which marked a fresh change in cinematography.
Nearly all of Kubrick’s films, and to some extent his whole career, seem to be somewhat overshadowed by these stories of personal struggle and technical innovation. 2001: A Space Odyssey is praised for its expert and adept creation of a world thought impossible to achieve (without the recent developments in SFX, VFX). Of course, these things should not be dismissed and are worthy of all the accolades bestowed upon them. I think it’s important though to focus on the film itself and analyse it as separate from events outside of the film.
The production design, cinematography, and art direction received several accolades including Oscars and deservedly so – perhaps the years of research and the breakdown-inducing demands of Kubrick were worth it. These elements instantly capture the audience, feeling as though you have stepped into a painting, giving the film a beautifully enticing and realistic quality.
What makes Barry Lyndon so brilliant is that – unlike other period dramas which feel more fantastical despite a less dramatic storyline – the production design and cinematography coupled with a detailed and complex story of one man’s rise and fall, create a believable world that seems almost touchable.
Though the film was largely dismissed by critics and audiences upon its release, Barry Lyndon has recently been ranked as one of the top three greatest Kubrick films by The Guardian and Little White Lies. So, don’t be put off by its over 3 hour running time, it is worth it – Barry Lyndon is a masterpiece.