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Form a Square For That Purpose: Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and the Illusion of Civility

In some respects, Barry Lyndon is seen as an outlier in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

The film is a lush and extended period drama, adapted from a nineteenth century novel set in the eighteenth century. It arrives in the middle of an acclaimed run of films from director Stanley Kubrick: Doctor Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. By all appearances, Barry Lyndon stands apart from these films. “Period piece” is obviously a film genre unto itself, but it is not as heightened as the bigger and bolder films around it.

Arresting imagery.

Barry Lyndon is arguably Kubrick’s only “period film” outside of Spartacus, which the director famously disowned and is arguably seen as a film more overtly influenced by its leading man than its director. Of course, some of Kubrick’s films move backwards and forwards in time; Full Metal Jacket takes place in the late sixties, while the prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey is set at “the dawn of man.” Nevertheless, for many casual film fans approaching Barry Lyndon, the film’s period trapping stands out from the surrounding films, which are largely set near the present and into the future.

Indeed, it could be argued that this difficulty that casual observers have in positioning Barry Lyndon within the Kubrickian canon accounts for some of the controversy around the film’s place in the director’s larger filmography. Upon release, the film was largely met with confusion and disinterest, critics often struggling with what to make of the finished product. For his part, Kubrick dismissed the idea of critics forming a consensus on a film like Barry Lyndon after just one viewing.

Initial audiences weren’t enamored with the film.

Of course, this is arguably par for the course with Kubrick films, particularly those towards the end of his career. Many Kubrick films opened to a divided critical opinion before slowly solidifying their popular reputations over time; 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining. However, Barry Lyndon seems to be a special case. Debate was still raging over the critical merits of the film after Kubrick’s death, even in letter columns of newspapers like The New York Times. Even the release of remastered editions forty years later find proponents arguing the film is undervalued or underrated.

However, watching Barry Lyndon, the film never really feels like an outlier in terms of Kubrick’s filmography. Indeed, in some respects, it feels like a culmination of many of the director’s recurring themes and fascination. Barry Lyndon is perhaps the clearest articulation of some of the key themes within Stanley Kubrick’s larger body of work, in particular through its engagement with the Enlightenment as a window through which he might explore the human concept of “civilisation.”

Drawing to a close.

Repeatedly over the course of his filmography, Kubrick engages with the idea of civilisation and order, the structures that mankind imposes upon the world in order to provide a sense of reason or logic to a chaotic universe. Repeatedly in his movies, Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is really just a veneer that masks the reality of the human condition, providing a framework for acts of violence and self-destruction that seem hardwired into the human brain. Kubrick suggests that “civilisation” is a fragile construct, and one that occasionally seems hostile to the nature of those who inhabit it.

Unfolding against the rigid social mores of the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon allows Kubrick to construct the starkest and most literal example of that theme.

Soldiering on.

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