Rightly so, much has been made of the lighting in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975): it’s an impressive example of technical innovation which (perhaps more importantly) achieves a spectacular aesthetic, reminiscent of the works of Gainsborough (1727- 1788) and other eighteenth century painters. More generally though, the film is often respected but not loved: especially when first released, it was held up as unnecessarily slow and lifeless. The critical feeling is summed up by a quotation from a youthful Steven Spielberg, who believed the film was like “going through the Prado without lunch.”
A film about films, Jan Harlan’s Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) reveals the extent to which Kubrick grappled with technical questions to achieve his desired aesthetic. For his candlelit interiors, Kubrick chose to manipulate the camera set up, rather than the light source. He experimented with a number of cameras, lenses and film stocks before finding three high-speed 50mm f/0.70 lenses and getting a custom mount built for them. These lenses (originally developed for N.A.S.A.) have enormous apertures which allow enough of the unique (and notoriously difficult to shoot) candlelight onto the film. The results really do speak for themselves:
But what of the shot choice, the dialogue and the pacing of the piece: why is the combined effect of these factors necessarily a weakness? I believe that Kubrick controls all aspects of the picture to create a deep sense of the period. The impressiveness of the lighting is met by the quality of the costumes and props, many being genuine antiques rather than replicas. The images generated by the carefully positioned and rarely moving camera embody the sense of decorum and an awareness of a public self that Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) strives for in an attempt to advance socially. While the tone of Kubrick’s film is in line with the gleeful cynicism of Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the picture chooses to tell the narrative primarily through its images, reducing the dialogue to necessaries and converting the narration from an extensive first-person account to a cooly delivered (unnamed) third-person voice.
It should be noted too that, directly because of his aesthetic and emotional restraint, Kubrick raises the intensity of the rare moments of broken down decorum. So, for example, the viewer notices that the camera violently follows the erratic movements of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), as she screams for the death of her son; Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) vomits before the duel with his step-father and there is a moment of utter despair, when Lyndon is first told he must suffer amputation and lose a leg.
Part Two begins with a notice: “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters which Befell Barry Lyndon”; a dramatic irony hangs over the final half of the film. (The intermission does come at almost exactly half way.) The viewer becomes aware, then, that Kubrick’s portrayal of a life in the eighteenth century contains a paradox of wonderfully stylised set pieces and brutally realistic social dynamics. We know, perhaps, that the duel will end badly, that the poor Irish boy will not succeed, but we nonetheless feel revolted by the actions of Lord Bullington. Kubrick demands technical perfection not for hollow aesthetics: retrospectively, the once warm but flickering and quickly extinguished candlelight embodies the passions of men and the transitory nature of luxury. As the final title card says: “It was in the reign of George III that the above-named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”