Gilt Covering Rot: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon

Warner Bros.

In any ambition lies danger. The individual who wishes to be a great warrior risks becoming an unidentified corpse on the battlefield. The individual who wishes to travel into space risks disintegration when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The individual who wishes to live a life of opulent luxury risks simply gilding over rot. Such is the fate that befalls Barry Lyndon. 

Of all ages in English history, has any been so morally corrupt and enfeebled as that of the Georgian period? Rampant degradation of all aspects of society—from the most privileged duke to the most despondent urchin—was backdropped by such high culture, boundless riches, and stiff, stunted relationships as to ruin its people. Onto this patchwork of repression, Stanley Kubrick mapped a young man, and allowed us to witness his entrancement with (and resentment at) the society that in turn rejected and seduced him.

Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon introduces us to our lead character, Redmond Barry, a young man in rural Ireland with few prospects. His father has been lost to a duel long before the film begins, and the young Barry has very little in his life other than his cousin, Nora—a flirtatious young woman who toys with Barry, greatly delighting in her “lapdog.” This period of Barry’s life is shot softly, as if we were watching Mary Pickford filmed through a lens covered in Vaseline. Barry here is just as soft and sweet, unable to match Nora’s knowing, experienced flirtations as he stumbles and blushes and embarrasses himself in front of her. Barry has so little experience in his life that he cannot even bring himself to accept her open invitation to touch her, and he swiftly loses his cousin to the attentions of a wealthy British captain happy to make her his mistress. Captain Quinn has a salary of £1,500 and at least four other prior lovers that he professes to Nora. Barry has neither experience nor opportunity. The resentment of losing his first, true love to a man who clearly views her as a pretty, whorish trinket—coupled with his perpetual feeling of inadequacy over his Irish birthplace—ensures that Barry seeks retribution in the only manner available to him: a duel. He swiftly defeats his opponent and flees to England, attempting to escape justice by enrolling to fight in the Seven Years’ War. 

At the beginning of his tale, Barry is, in truth, superior to those around him. Nora feigns innocence, his cousins and friends conspire to be rid of him, and the Army men who dominate his lands are obnoxious and pompous. In contrast, the youthful Barry is earnest and naïve. The opulence that surrounds him is found in the richness of the landscapes in which he resides, rather than any worldly riches. This will all soon change: Redmond Barry is not a man to be satisfied with virtue. From this point on, Barry will refuse to settle for anything less than the highest property, land, women, and titles that misbegotten wealth could ever afford.  

Finding himself in the midst of a war that is indiscriminately killing better men than himself, Barry conspires to flee the army and cross the border to nearby Prussia. The gentlemanly, officerial ambitions that he holds for himself—nay, believes himself entitled to—are swiftly found amidst the sumptuous scenery and fleeting encounters with pretty women. In one notable affair, Barry allows himself the indulgence of slipping away into a lonely young woman’s home, taking the place, eating the food, and bedding the wife of the soldier husband who suffers as Barry pampers himself in this false life that he has inserted himself into. After a few days, he leaves his Prussian wifelet, appetite sated and the desire to roam once again paramount. This hazy, comfortable life is swiftly stripped away. Easily discovered as a deserter after bragging to Prussian officers of his imaginary familial links to the ambassador—ambitiously attempting to convince the civilized and intelligent German officer class that said ambassador is named O’Grady—he is swiftly apprehended and essentially enslaved in the Prussian Army as cannon fodder, along with other men from the dregs of humanity, “hired or stolen from almost every nation in Europe.” 

Barry’s conduct would never recover from his baptism of fire with fellow deserters, thugs, and miscreants. Having saved the life of the man who damned him to serve in the Prussian Army, he is subsequently offered the promise of a modest fortune by the Captain’s uncle, who asks for him to spy on a suspected fraud. What fools they are to think that one heroic deed could outweigh a lifetime of resentment, or that the promise of a decent sum of money could satiate our man! For Barry has now known many women, much drink, and glimpsed greater wealth than the stern, spartan Prussians could ever bring him. Barry’s lifetime of eschewing moral rigor allows him to both promise them devotion and betray them within minutes. He absconds with the subject he is obligated to spy on, and flees with him across the border, where the two corrupt, caddish individuals can cheat together at cards as they attempt to make their true fortune. 

Perhaps no scenes represent the true opulence of Barry Lyndon like those at the card tables: Kubrick indulges his viewer just as Barry indulges himself. No artificial lighting was used in these scenes, in a (successful) attempt to bring the picture as close to a painting by Gainsborough or Watteau as possible. The finest lighting is complemented by the finest compositions, complemented by the finest acting. Delicate blinks and slow, burning scandal are brought to life and executed with total mastery by Kubrick, always in control of every iota onscreen. So dedicated was Kubrick to the setting of the scene that, in order to film nighttime scenes lit only by candlelight, he used lenses developed by NASA.

Kubrick’s goals—to create a morality tale of luxury and sin, to craft a prototype of the Napoleon biopic that he yearned for, to recreate the Georgian era itself—were successes, paradoxically, born of his own obsessive indulgence. When sat at one card table, bathed in glowing candlelight, and conspiring to seduce the perfect, beautiful (and soon to be widowed) Lady Lyndon, Barry looks at her as if mournful, watching everything he is not and everything he knows he will corrupt. Barry has become a parasite inside the bowels of Europe’s nobility, taking what he will from their colonels, their police ministers, their disreputable sons, and now, their lonely wives. 

Whereas once we found the character in the true sublime of his Irish homeland, now we find him in an altogether more fraudulent form of opulence. The smoothed-over decay of syphilitic faces covered in beauty marks and white powder stand in for the state of the aristocratic souls of the company that Barry now keeps. Lord Charles Lyndon, whom Barry has cuckolded, is the height of such repulsiveness: makeup caked, sores buried, direct in a manner unbecoming of a gentleman, spluttering and gagging with outrage as Barry lies to him and squealing like a pig as his heart spasms after gleefully declaring that he will see Barry hang, surrounded by innumerable gilded mirrors and shimmering chandeliers. He will soon die, knowing that his replacement is already in his bed. The splendor, the decay, and the decline claim another victim.  

Despite knowing his plans, the audience too succumbs to his insatiable rise. How could the individual who watches Barry marry Lady Lyndon not find themselves entranced by his beauty? This is Kubrick’s trick: the audience has borne witness to Barry’s many faults, is aware of his plot to use his bride, and intimately knows his moral and intellectual failings. Yet when he stands there—gently powdered, beautifully tailored, handsome and softly shot, with dozens surrounding him in orbit, enthralled by the beauty that must represent goodness—the audience believes, just for a moment, that he could be good. How could his bride have stood a chance? Thenceforth, Redmond Barry becomes Barry Lyndon. Nothing of his bride is not to be used and discarded. Her name is the only aspect of her that he truly desires. Immediately upon marrying her, Barry Lyndon sits with her in a carriage, smoking. When she asks him to cease, he simply turns to her and blows the smoke into her face. Our omniscient narrator tells us that “Lady Lyndon was soon destined to occupy a place in Barry’s life, not very much more important than the elegant carpets and pictures which would form the pleasant background of his existence.” She, too, comprises the meaningless opulence that suffocates his soul.

Barry Lyndon—both the man and the picture—represent shimmering opulence covering moral decline. Barry himself is a malignant force who manages through luxury and beauty to briefly convince others of a goodness that does not exist. An abundance of luxury surrounds his unfortunate wife, but so too does a complete absence of love. Care goes into the maintenance of her surroundings, of what decorates her body and hair, but little attention is paid to the care of her soul. Even her devoted reverend is decorated in perfectly pressed garments and face powder—pressed, repressed, powdered.  

Lady Lyndon’s son, a young boy well before the age of puberty, is repulsed by the man who has designed to replace his father, and whose cheeks he is expected to kiss adoringly. Barry whips him for this insolence, and the cycle of violence against the young innocent continues. Barry has forgotten the humble village from which he grew up, naïve and besotted, and now uses every individual who crosses his path. He is too jaded to recognize any innocence in anyone around him, even children. He is now in possession of a grand estate and £30,000 a year. The opulence that surrounds him is obscene. But, he realizes—after nine years of marriage—that he has grown accustomed to it. By doing so, he becomes vulnerable; in the event of Lady Lyndon’s death, her son, Lord Bullingdon, would surely cut off the stepfather that he despises so greatly. Barry Lyndon needs a title, and will gain it through leveraging the opulence that he now feels himself entitled to, allowing himself to rack up huge debts in order to cajole, flatter, and bribe those still superior to him. 

Barry’s story reflects that of humanity’s fallen nature: when pursuing worldly goods, we are restless, misshapen, deadened to our fellow man and in pursuit only of the false and fleeting. “For what am I to myself without You, but a guide to my own downfall?” St. Augustine once cried out to God, despondent at his own sins. There is no God in Georgian London, the clergy themselves more concerned with schooling children and ensuring their own wages are maintained. Barry looks at the gilded cruelties around him and imagines that they are good because they look so. His heart is shuttered off to his wife, his vicar, his old friends, the poor. His pride swells, and the fineries he drapes himself in cover all that is rotten underneath with beautiful silks, tassels, and golden thread. Truly, he would have been better off to remain in the rural Irish village where he was born.

Our character is now, in the words of our narrator, bound up in an “inextricable toil of bills and debts, of mortgages and insurances, and all the horrible evils attendant upon them.” But if this weak, decadent, and callous man maintains one link to humanity, it is the love he holds for the son he has begotten with Lady Lyndon, Brian, to whom he denies nothing. This excess will kill them both. Brian begs his father for a proper horse to replace his little pony, and steals away in the night to ride him. Little Brian Lyndon falls and swiftly dies. Inconsolable in grief, Barry’s final stages of life resemble a Hogarth etching. He lies, drunken and grotesque, ruined in every sense, waiting for death. The previously light utterances of the soundtrack now drum on heavily, as if it were preparation for a war. Those who have cause to hate Barry need not rush to hurt him, but to simply wait: nothing is more damaging to Barry Lyndon’s body and soul than Barry Lyndon himself.  

The magnificent, obsessive care to detail synonymous with Kubrick’s filmography is perhaps best represented and utilized in Barry Lyndon. The opulence of his filmmaking could easily veer into indulgence, but never does; when a young Barry spends lengthy, heady seconds being guided into discovering the handkerchief tucked into Nora’s corset, it is not a dictator’s indulgent desire to showcase a pretty décolletage, but instead an opportunity to allow the audience to spend enough time with Barry to realize his weaknesses from an early moment. The course of Barry Lyndon’s life is dominated by superior men—whether cuckolded by the Army officer, given a second chance by the Prussians, or bested by the stepson who loved his mother more than he, Lyndon fails and fails again in the face of the slightest hint of superiority or integrity, never once rising to the challenge. Kubrick’s meticulous recreation of the social milieu of Georgian England ensures that every aspect of Lyndon’s rise and fall is constructed with a near-obscene level of care, the audience so close to Barry’s ambitions that we are almost aware of every beat of his heart, complicit in the achievement of every desire as well as the subsequent fall: enamored with the gilt that covers the rot.