What is luck? The dictionary definition is “success brought about by chance rather than by ones own actions”. To the religious mind nothing can be occasioned by luck because all is within the compass of a providential God. In Christianity what others call ‘luck’ is instead called ‘grace’. The Greeks believed in the randomness and pointlessness of luck, but they ascribed it to the capricious will of the Goddess Fortuna. Fortune was experienced as capriciousness but lay ultimately in the lap of the gods. To the secular mind the possibility of chance is an affront. To surrender to the idea that life is underscored by meaningless, pointless contingency is, for some, too brutal to be contemplated. Therefore instead, for the secular mind, providence is smuggled back in and called behavioural determinism or karma or destiny or fate or some such retrospective self-deceiving comfort. Let us steel ourselves and remain with the definition of luck as nothing more than pure mundane chance.
One way of reading Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975) is as an examination of luck. His screenplay is based on the novel by William Thackeray, published in 1844, The Luck of Barry Lyndon about an Irish adventurer in eighteenth century Europe.
Barry experiences good and bad fortune in relentless episodic sequences of success and failure:
Born into a loving Irish family/ his father dies in a duel when Barry is very young.
Barry falls in love with his cousin/ she jilts him with Captain Quinn.
Given 20 guineas to start his life in Dublin/ Barry is robbed of it on the road into town
Enlists is a good English regiment/ forcibly dragooned into a brutish Prussian regiment
Makes a fortune at cards in Weimar/ loses it all
Marries Lady Lyndon and her £30,000 a year and Castle Hackton/ squanders the money and estate trying to buy a title for their beloved son Bryan
Bryan is set to inherit the castle and estate/ Bryan dies in a riding accident
Barry granted a pension of £500 a year/ he declines into poverty
Kubrick’s plotting of the narrative is unusual. He concentrates on minutiae: for example four duels where the camera lingers lovingly over each pistol prepared, each duellist’s unsteady hand, the anxiety of a Second as he explains elaborately in minute detail the rule of a contest. Kubrick has the same level of detail for the scenes set at the gaming tables of fashionable spas. A studied concentration on each card carefully laid, on each beauty spot on every be-wigged player, on each coin counted and transferred from loser to winner. In these scenes everything is left to chance. Fortunes are made or dissipated on the mundane but devastatingly arbitrary turn of a playing card. Lives are lost or ruined from the chance outcome of a misfiring pistol or gust of wind blowing a shot off course or a nervously unsteady arm.
Disconcertingly, major story developments occur offscreen. Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon) speaks no more than about ten short lines while her character commits adultery, is widowed, falls in love, marries again, has a son and is made jealous by her new husband’s infidelity. The characters spend more time riding horses, or travelling within carriages, between events whilst an urbane, doleful narrater (the lugubrious voice of Michael Horden) tells us what just happened or what is about to happen – neither of which Kubrick films. The inner life of characters is not illuminated by verbal explanations of intent or desire and they appear inert within their own stories. The whole film has a melancholy, enigmatic, subdued air.
It is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Kubrick poured over reproductions of eighteenth century paintings by Watteau, Reynolds, Hogarth and Gainsborough to help create his meticulously composed images. Tiny human figures in ruffed shirts are set against vast magnificent backdrops of visual splendour. The action is either kept at arms length or bypassed in microscopic scrupulous clarity.
Barry is a rogue among aristocrats but he is not unfavourably compared with the well bred, blue blooded nobles. We see aristocrats and officers cheating at cards, refusing to pay their debts, lobbying for money the monarch to grant titles, selling paintings at ludicrous prices to take advantage of the unwary, cavorting with prostitutes. Lord Ludd, Lord Bullingdon, and for that matter Captain Quinn, are revealed in close up to be terrified before their duels with Barry, who alone retains a calm sang-froid. There is nothing noble about this nobility.
Kubrick sabotaged any suspense by having the narrator tell us well in advance what the outcome of the film will be. The film ends abruptly with Barry, aged about 35, being forced to emigrate from England after losing a duel. If the ending seems arbitrary, it’s because it is. Given his age much of Barry’s life is still left to run. There is a sense that had the film lasted another 15 minutes we could have witnessed another of his rises in fortune – it just so happened that when the music stopped he was on one of his downward trajectories. It seems not to matter how the film ends: the only point is the earlier unwinding of the capricious process. There is no pattern to this reality, merely a series of accidents.
The days of filming were notoriously difficult. The shoot lasted 350 days (between 1973 and 1974) and went six times over budget for Warner Bros. Ryan O’Neal (Barry) was supposed to be on set for 18 weeks and stayed for 52. Marisa Berenson spent the first three months in costume and make-up every day without being used (“I might need you tomorrow” was Kubrick’s refrain). A day would often involve 300 takes of the same short scene, “Do it again”. Murray Melvin (Reverend Runt) contracted for 3 weeks stayed for 6 months. Kubrick insisted on shooting all scenes in natural light. This included the candle-lit interiors where a highly sensitive low-light camera produced by NASA was procured by Kubrick for the job. In one scene 1000 triple-wick candles were used – the shot took a week to set up. Berenson said afterwards that the use of the NASA camera required all actors to stay still or they would be out of focus. No wonder the indoor gambling candle-lit scenes seem particularly static.
On its release in 1975 the film bombed with audiences and critics (only admired for its technical excellence) and Warner Bros. made a huge loss. One reason for this could be a negative reaction to Kubrick’s presentation of life as something subject to luck and contingency. This is not what art is supposed to be. People want art to correct the blunders of an unsatisfactory reality: to provide the illusion that life has purpose and is subject to a plan, and an ending that gives meaning to what has gone before. Like many Kubrick films it has had to grow its reputation over the years. Marisa Berenson (who was in two of my other favourite films Cabaret and Death in Venice) said earlier this year “Not a day goes by without someone talking to me about Barry Lyndon. It puts a spell on people. I think it will last forever”. I regard it as a masterpiece. It has just been re-released in cinemas and I watched it (again) at York City Screen last week. Can I propose that it is time for people to stop worrying and learn to love Barry Lyndon?
*Irrelevant spoiler alert