Imagine you were tasked with opening a movie by shooting a scene of a duel. One of the participants is the main character’s father, and this duel will set the tone for the story, with subtle foreshadowing.
How would you approach it? Many may consider ways to build tension and suspense—a use of close-ups and exchanging glances perhaps.
Few might position the camera far from the action, setting a wide focal length with the characters in the distant background and the foreground as a stone wall in 18th century Ireland.
This latter set-up is exactly how Kubrick opened his 1975 film, ‘Barry Lyndon.’ The duel looks a moving European painting—arms raised, a shot fired, a body dropped—the composition of the image holds throughout, remaining immaculate.
One of my favorite film channels is called “every frame a painting.” I always thought that title perfectly encapsulated cinema, and now, having recently seen ‘Barry Lyndon,’ I’ve found the picture perfect example for this phrase,
Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ is the result of an intrepid, uncompromising, artistic vision, and worthy of study for those looking to express their artistic voice.
Adapted from a novel by William Thackeray, ‘Barry Lyndon’ takes place in the late 18th century, where an Irishman, Redmond Barry, journeys from courting his cousin in the fields of Ireland and manors of Ireland to fighting for Britain in the Seven Years’ War to eventually marrying a countess. There is much in between, and the movie runs over 3 hours.
Initially, I thought the length and the film’s reputation for its slow pace would make it a difficult watch. Surprisingly, I found it quite entertaining. I was totally immersed in the world.
This immersion was no doubt due to the work ethic and strong vision of Stanley Kubrick and his team. Pre-production lasted for longer than a year (with the production taking place in 1972 and 1973).
Costumes were meticulously recreated from 18th century paintings and references, and specific paintings inspired direction cinematic compositions—from painters such as Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth. Kubrick and his team were able to, with quite a bit difficulty, adapt lenses made for NASA with an open aperture of .7 so they could capture interiors lit only by candles. They used music from the period. There were no sets built for this film—royal and noble homes and buildings throughout the U.K. and Germany served as sets for the interiors, with corresponding fields as the exteriors. (Imagine filming scenes in a historic home by candle light, having to reset the candles each take while making sure nothing on location is damaged.)
The commitment to the artistic intent in this film is beyond the realm of the rational. The production tried to stay true to the spirit of the time, covering everything from costumes to the source of light.
As Kubrick said in an interview with Michel Ciment (emphasis added),
“On Barry Lyndon, I accumulated a very large picture file of drawings and paintings taken from art books. These pictures served as the reference for everything we needed to make—clothes, furniture, hand props, architecture, vehicles, etc. Good research is an absolute necessity and I enjoy doing it. You have an important reason to study a subject in much greater depth than you would ever have done otherwise, and then you have the satisfaction of putting the knowledge to immediate good use. The designs for the clothes were all copied from drawings and paintings of the period. I spent a year preparing Barry Lyndon before the shooting began and I think this time was very well spent. The starting point and sine qua non of any historical or futuristic story is to make you believe what you see.”
The results, speak for themselves. With Kubrickian symmetry and slow zoom outs, every shot in this film not only has beautiful composition and intricate detail, but they all serve the story. French film critic (and Kubrick expert) Michel Ciment remarked that he would not cut a frame from ‘Barry Lyndon’—I could not agree more. This film is a body of work that composes a complete whole.
At release, ‘Barry Lyndon’ did not make much money. And while it was generally well received, it did not garner the universal acclaim it now enjoys. By some accounts, Kubrick was saddened by the reception at the time, and that may have influenced his decision to shoot the safer (albeit still great) The Shining. But today, more than 40 years later, ‘Barry Lyndon’ not only stands as an achievement of filmmaking, but as a par excellence example of fully committing to and executing on an artistic vision. By acting with immense respect for the craft, Kubrick was able to confidently tackle the challenges of production to create this master work. Along the way, Stanley Kubrick innovated and pushed the filmmaking medium forward—almost as a by-product of his main efforts to make ‘Barry Lyndon’ live up to his imagination.