Certainly Barry is the center of this film’s universe, and yet we’re constantly reminded of his smallness, his insignificance. And that leads us to perhaps the second most significant “character” in this film: the narrator. It’s impossible for me to imagine how Barry Lyndon would function without “him.” Voiced by Michael Hordern, the narration has a children’s storybook quality that on first viewing conjured in my mind images of Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Wood. (Turns out I wasn’t far off: Hordern eventually went on to narrate a TV adaptation of Paddington Bear.) The narration is quaint, soothing, sympathetic, and yet at the same time it can be wry and critical, commenting on the action in a way that provides necessary context or sharpens our focus. It’s often argued that filmmakers should strive to “show not tell” the thoughts and emotions of their characters, but Barry Lyndon is a film that finds a happy marriage doing both. The narration never serves as a replacement for portrayal, it simply enhances it, allowing Kubrick to impart great emotional depth into scenes that, due to the story’s broad and episodic nature, often have very little opportunity for physical build-up.
A terrific example is the scene in which Barry first meets the Chevalier de Balibari, having been sent by Potzdorf as a spy. Barry isn’t supposed to know English, but once in the presence of the chevalier, Barry is overcome by the chevalier’s regal appearance and nobility, and by an accent that reminds him of home, and he finds it impossible to continue with the charade. These details are imparted to us almost solely from the narration; Kubrick’s camera simply shows Barry’s pensive face. But through the combination of the narration and physical action, the scene delivers a sharp emotional punch. “Those who have never been out of their country know little what it is to hear a friendly voice in captivity,” the narrator says, as if admitting that even he is at a loss to explain completely the tearful scene that follows, when Barry drops his disguise and the chevalier consoles him. But in Barry’s pained face, we feel what the words can’t describe. In this scene and others, the narration is crucial to our basic understanding of what’s happening, and it’s also a key to a deeper understanding.
EH: What I love about the narration in Barry Lyndon is that, as you say, it breaks what is often considered to be one of the central rules of screenwriting and writing in general: show, don’t tell. That idea is sometimes considered such a hard-and-fast rule that voiceovers are disparaged on principle, but here Kubrick demonstrates just how powerful and effective a voiceover, even or especially one that tells us outright what the characters are feeling, can be. The narrator is crucial to the film because he provides a perspective outside of Barry. The narrator, with his removed, quasi-omniscient perspective, is evidence that Barry’s delusion of himself as the center of the world is just that, a delusion. The narrator’s irony is necessary because it undermines Barry’s earnestness at every turn. Throughout his rise to high society, Barry keeps telling himself that he’ll never again allow himself to be lowered or prevented from attaining what he believes is his deserved status. But we only hear this through the narrator, whose wry, detached tones—and the repetition of this mantra after each of Barry’s failures—suggests just how ridiculous Barry is, just how distorted his vision of the world actually is.
If the film were narrated by Barry, or if Barry made his feelings known more directly, there would be no distance from Barry’s skewed perspective on his own life. The narrator allows Kubrick—and the audience—to observe Barry’s flounderings from a greater distance, to see his self-deceptions and blatant manipulations for what they are. We feel for Barry, but not in the same intimate way that we would in a film that was more closely aligned with his point of view. Instead, we’re encouraged not only to sympathize with Barry and to share his emotions, but to understand him; in that sense, you’re absolutely right, the voiceover is the path leading to a deeper understanding of Barry the man and the social forces that define and drive him. It strikes me that Woody Allen definitely took a page from Kubrick’s book when making Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which similarly uses a wry, detached voiceover to obliquely comment on the misguidedness of his characters’ strivings.
The narration isn’t the only way in which Kubrick undercuts Barry’s progress into high society. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one where Barry, in a rage over his stepson Lord Bullingdon’s open insults, leaps onto the young man and beats him during a concert. Despite the strong emotions that provoke Barry’s actions, this is a comic set piece, as the assembled nobles go slipping and falling in an attempt to break the two men apart. One man slides across the floor towards the camera, and it ends with all the powdered wigs in a football pileup on top of Barry. This scene shares with the narration a wry tone that finds the comedy and the absurdity in emotions and incidents that are deadly serious for the people involved.
JB: Barry’s attack on his stepson reminds me of Daniel Plainview’s brawl with Eli Sunday at the end of There Will Be Blood. It’s violent, terrifying, oversized and, yes, at the same time it’s hilariously absurd. Kubrick seems to delight in the sight of dandified men trying to mix it up in a scuffle, and so after Barry gets in a few licks, Kubrick hangs around to watch all the other men ineptly trying to break up the fight, giving us a broad shot full of wigs, powdered faces and stockings running up to the knee churning in a rugby pile of immaculately dressed men.
In addition to exposing Barry as a “common opportunist” in a nobleman’s clothing, Kubrick seems to be skewering the supposed nobility of the era at large. I mentioned earlier the scene in which Barry meets the chevalier, and that’s another good example. The narrator says that Barry was swayed by the “splendor” of the chevalier’s appearance and the “nobility” of his manner, but to our eyes there’s nothing striking about the chevalier whatsoever. His painted pink cheeks are especially clownish. The painted moles on his face seem randomly placed. And then there’s his eye patch. Splendor? Hardly. As for his manner, the chevalier seems less noble than spiritless, bored. This is what Barry finds glamorous? Why? Only a silly people—the kind of people who would give their young son a sheep-drawn carriage to ride on his birthday and then use that same sheep-drawn carriage as a hearse when the son dies—would dress and behave this way, Kubrick seems to be implying. And, furthermore, only an especially silly people would duel.
Barry Lyndon is punctuated by no less than three duels: the one that opens the film, in which Barry’s father is killed; the one that sends Barry on the lam, in which Barry appears to kill Captain Quin; and the one near the end of the film, in which Barry and Lord Bullingdon seem determined not to kill one another. Each scene has a slightly different mood—from swift and deadly to drawn out and inconsequential (relatively speaking)—but each scene highlights the absurdities of dueling, and thus the foolishness of any people who would partake in the ritual. In the first duel, the absurdity of the activity is made clear when the narrator notes that Barry’s father’s promising life was cut short because of something as trivial as “the sale of some horses.” The stakes are even more ridiculous in the second duel, between Barry and Captain Quin, because if Barry loses the duel he’s potentially dead, but by winning the duel he is cast out by the very family that he hoped to impress so that he might continue his love affair with his cousin; a true no-win situation. The greatest absurdity of this duel, though, turns out to be the revelation that Barry’s duel with Quin wasn’t a duel at all but a ruse designed to trick the ignorant youngster into leaving town.