Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Kiss Me, Boy, For We'll Never Meet Again.

Stanley Kubrick was nominated for three Academy Awards in one night on four separate occasions, winning only once for Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the other three occasions he went home empty handed, and on each of those occasions he was nominated in the categories of Best Script, Best Director and Best Picture. That's a pretty impressive nomination achievement, and a scandal that he never picked up on statue on those nights for one of his primary roles in filmmaking. Especially as he is such a groundbreaking and revered filmmaker.

The first of these three brilliant (yet unrewarded) trifectas was for his black and white Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. The second was for his controversial A Clockwork Orange (which I just remembered I watched a while ago and haven't written up - scandal! It'll have to come next.) His last triple nomination was for his epic period piece Barry Lyndon, which is the film we are all here to discuss today. (He did receive a final nomination for his last war film Full Metal Jacket in the Screenplay category, but still, empty handed.)

Where to start with Barry Lyndon? It's a good three hours long. It has the biggest aperture used in film history, utilising a lens developed for NASA to use with the Apollo missions to the moon. Any scenes where candles were meant to light the set were shot using only candlelight (hence the revolutionary lenses.) Many of the costumes were actual period pieces, bought at auction. Production had to be shifted from Ireland to England after Kubrick received work that his name was on an IRA hitlist for shooting a film in Ireland featuring English soldiers. The shoot went for 300 days. It was truly epic in so many ways.

Ryan O'Neal plays the eponymous character, who begins the story as lowly Redmond Barry, the son of an Irishman killed in a duel related to an argument about horses. As he grows up his mother refuses to marry, instead doting upon Redmond, who in turn falls in love with his cousin. Unfortunately, she is torn between Redmond and an army captain, who will bring fortune into the family. Redmond is discouraged from destroying their chance at wealth, but is angered and challenges the captain to a duel, believing he has killed the captain and subsequently fleeing for Dublin with the only money his mother has managed to squirrel away - twenty guineas. In fact, the captain has not died, as the fight was rigged. However, shortly after leaving Redmond is robbed by highwaymen of his money and horses, and is forced to walk the five miles to the next town.

Broke, horseless and still on the run, Redmond signs up with the British army, his only resort for survival. Whilst enlisted he is sent to Europe to fight in the Seven Years War, where he comes across a family friend, another captain in the English army who informs him of the rigged duel. The latter captain is shortly killed, leaving Redmond all the money he has, and Redmond soon deserts, impersonating a courier. He is, however, discovered by the Prussian army, and forced to either join their ranks or be tried as a deserter. He joins them and manages to save a Prussian captain's life. So, at the end of the war, he is offered a job working for the Prussian Minister of Police, the captain's uncle. There he is charged with infiltrating the confidence of one Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a fellow Irishman whom the Prussians suspect of being a spy. They want Redmond to uncover his spying, but once in his employ his cover collapses due to his joy of being near a fellow countryman and the two end up working together. Ultimately they are forced to flee, and begin to travel Europe as professional gamblers, cheating the whole way.

Whilst on this jaunt they come across Sir Charles Lyndon and his wife, the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson.) Redmond sees in the Countess an opportunity for him to gain status and wealth, and when Sir Charles dies he is quick to marry her, assuming the title of Barry Lyndon. Sir Charles and the Countess have a young son, Lord Bullingdon, who does not approve of the marriage, but Barry and his new wife soon add a new child, Bryan. The marriage is not happy, however, and Barry's mother soon joins them and begins to worry about Barry's future - if the Countess dies, everything will go to Lord Bullingdon unless Barry can secure himself some true status of his own. He goes about lavishing money around to entertain persons of interest in the hope of currying favour and gaining a Lordship of his own, but after a very public confrontation with a now older Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), he falls steeply out of favour. Bullingdon has meanwhile left the family home. Bryan is thrown from a horse and dies, seeing Barry turn to drink and the Countess turn to religion, with Barry's mother taking over the management of the vastly reduced estate and firing the Reverend who has been the Countess' solace and the tutor for both Lord Bullingdon and subsequently Bryan. Upon hearing of this, Bullingdon returns and challenges Barry to the famous duel that occurs towards the end of the film, managing to wound Barry and seeing him lose a leg. Whilst Barry is recuperating, Bullingdon takes control of the estate and offers Barry an annuity of 500 guineas is he promises to leave England and never return, otherwise his creditors will soon be upon him and he will end up in jail. Barry accepts and returns to his previous life as a gambler, only with much less success - he never sees his wife again.

That's the general gist of the story. Actually, I think that fairly well runs through the plot, but my god it is damn hard trying to cut that down into a bite-sized synopsis. It is a wonderful and slow story, not told with any rush but, in Kubrick's manner, without really anything within it that doesn't add to everything else. O'Neal in the lead does very well, keeping his character together perfectly, giving him a cavalier attitude that accepts most of what comes to him with a certain stoicism that really makes you like him. The supporting roles are fantastic, particularly the large one taken on by Magee.

The noted costumes (which won an Oscar) are perfect, but this film is all about Kubrick and the Oscar-winning cinematography from John Alcott. Little can be said about Kubrick and his style that hasn't been said before, but the photography is brilliant. Inspired by certain artists of the time, the picture really does take on the form. The muted colours and broad external expanses and stunning, and when matched with the candlelit interiors that truly transport you into the world of the Lyndons and Barrys. The trickiness of shooting in such low light with such a huge aperture and the miniscule focal length that provides is never really a problem - despite what I'm sure must be extremely finicky direction and blocking to ensure that the action remains as much in focus as is possible (why does the focus puller not get an Oscar?), the action plays out tremendously naturally. Of course, much of it is seated, as one expects in period pieces of this time, but there never really seems to be a soft focus issue. (I'm sure if there was, Kubrick simply would have retaken and retaken until the problem no longer showed... driving many a person crazy in the process.)

It's a masterpiece, through and through. It is compelling throughout, beautiful to look at and perfectly paced. I'd put off watching it because, quite frankly, it always appeared to be kind of boring, but boring it most definitely is not. I will definitely have to reassess how I arrange my Kubricks in order of preference now (an almost impossible task in and of itself.) 5 stars.

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