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Barry Lyndon

I don't know why, but I was expecting a romp. Maybe because I got Barry Lyndon mixed up with Tom Jones (which is now also on the to-see list because of John Varley's enthusiastic endorsement), or maybe because the DVD cover suggested a character who was a playful libertine.

Instead, Barry Lyndon is a languid account of a man who by virtue of luck, superior fighting ability, a doeful look and no small measure of chutzpah rises in rank and position only to be undone after he obtains these goals.

I saw the movie over two nights and in some ways the two parts - the rise and fall respectively - could almost be two different films: the pacing, characters and look are the same, but the mood is different.

In Part I Barry is presented as almost a half-wit, who fumbles and bumbles his way through romance and the European Wars, always escaping serious misfortune, always latching onto someone with the means to help him advance.

Ryan O'Neal plays it straight, almost too straight, and I couldn't help but get the sense that maybe the film was designed so that Barry fools not just the characters but also the camera. There's a sense that his opportunism isn't just intuitive but calculating, though there's never a wink to the camera that suggests otherwise.

The tone isn't overtly comedic, but neither is it heavily dramatic, probably because - while bad things happen to the people around him, Barry himself is never under any serious threat.

This changes in Part 2. Lyndon turns (or turns out to be) uncaring, unfaithful and unwise. The film turns cruel and melancholy. Where in Part 1 Kubrick drew out silent moments of seduction, in Part 2 he lingers on tension (the duel between Lyndon and his stepson) or despair (the aftermath of a horse riding accident).

The drama and conflict is much more in-your-face in Part 2 and the movie becomes more watchable as a result, even if Lyndon's eventual fate is given away by the narration early in Part 2.

Cinematographically the film shares similarities with Girl with a Pearl Earring - both movies were photographed to resemble paintings of the period. There's a shot in the film of Lyndon reading to his son underneath a huge canvas which shows this off brilliantly.

The violence in the movie - the wars and duels - are ritualised to an extent that strikes us as insane today. (Yet are today's conflicts any less stupid and tragic?) Interestingly, the pivotal scene where Lyndon lashes out against his stepson is anything but stylised. It's hot-blooded, visceral and shot hand-held.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 28, 2005 9:47 PM.

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