Steve Wilkinson has reviewed the remastered Region 1 release of Barry Lyndon. Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Bereson star in Kubrick’s 17th Century odyssey…
Perhaps chastened by the shocking reaction of the press and certain sections of the public to the controversial A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick turned to more conservative subject matter for his next feature. Based on the story “The Luck Of Barry Lyndon” by William Makepeace Thackeray, this 18th Century drama depicts the rise and fall of Irish scoundrel Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). He flees his home in Ireland (after shooting a man dead in a duel), loses his money and is forced to join the English army. Living only off his wits, he manages (more by luck than judgement) to achieve money and power through gambling, duelling and trickery. Ultimately established as Barry Lyndon (as husband to the immeasurably rich Lady Lyndon, played by Marisa Berenson) it seems Redmond has all he could want. Unfortunately, he seems fated to lose his Earthly possessions as his excessive ambition and humble origins undermine him.
Apparently the original novel is a fairly bawdy romp with a particularly unreliable first-person narrator in the form of Barry, which would make this story appear to be a suitable “sequel” to A Clockwork Orange and its anti-hero Alex. Surprisingly, Kubrick opts out of this approach in favour of a more detached view (the narrator is Michael Hordern and his ironic, mournful commentary often undermines Barry’s ambitions) in which we enjoy Barry’s triumphs at a distance, and watch his downfall impassively. In fact the film is designed as a recreation of the minutiae of 18th Century life in much the way that 2001 is a speculative recreation of the 21st Century. Most celebrated for its painterly compositions and ambitious use of extremely powerful zoom lenses (more often used to pull out from a single figure into a landscape rather than zooming in) and scenes shot only by candlelight, in fact nearly every frame of every sequence in the three hour film is ravishing.
If Kubrick’s ambition was to immerse the audience in history (rather than put modern characters with anachronistic attitudes into old-fashioned costumes, which is the norm) then Barry Lyndon succeeds admirably. The social, sexual, religious, financial and political (mainly upper class) life of the period is brought stunningly to life throughout a story that takes its time (much as 2001) but winds inexorably towards its downbeat conclusion. The first half is particularly entertaining, as the deadpan Barry falls in love (with his devious cousin Nora Brady, played by Gay Hamilton), duels (with the pompous English Captain John Quin, an inspired performance by Leonard Rossiter), enlists in at least two different armies, falls into cahoots with an Irish exile-turned-bogus-nobleman and gambler (Patrick Magee) and finally achieves fortune by stealing Lady Lyndon from her aged husband. The second half by contrast is a tragic tale (described in the title cards which begin both halves) that makes harder viewing but achieves considerable poignancy in the latter stages. Audiences obviously preferred to be shown visions of the future much more than history though as Barry Lyndon was considerably less successful than either 2001 or A Clockwork Orange, remaining one of Kubrick’s few relative “flops” and having a considerably lower profile than the other films included in the Kubrick Collection. A neglected gem.
One of the most visually ravishing films ever shot deserves a fine transfer, and here it gets it. Filmed in the same 1.66:1 aspect ratio as A Clockwork Orange, the same issues apply and Warners have gone for the same non-anamorphic approach. This caveat aside the image is appropriately breathtaking, with natural detail and colour allowed to shine through an image which is devoid of unnecessary grain, dirt or any digital artifacts. Many scenes are deliberately shot with a softening filter for an evocative effect, and it is to the disc producers’ credit that they have not tried to artifically sharpen or edge-enhance the image. The famous candlelit scenes in particular are rather limited in terms of focus and visual detail but here look realistic and appropriately eerie at times. Outstanding.
This is an audio track of typically painstaking versimilitude, where every gunshot, drum roll and rustle of expensive silk garment sounds authentic. It is also an outstanding example of Kubrick’s use of “found” music, ranging from The Chieftain’s evocation of rural Ireland life through military marches to sumptuous classical pieces by Handel, Bach and others. Originally released in mono, the track here receives a sympathetic 5.1 remix that does enough to “disguise” its origins without over-egging the pudding, so to speak. Doing away with the rather “shut-in” quality of monaural sound, here footfalls echo in large halls with the proper amount of stereo reverb. Effects are minimal, but the classical pieces carry an appropriate amount of weight. Only purists are likely to miss the original mono track, which conceivably could have been added as an “extra” but whose essence is definitely preserved in this new incarnation.
Extras are limited to a trailer which shows images of the ironic historical romp the film almost is, unfortunately undercut by a bored-sounding announcer listing an endless array of critical plaudits (of which there were many, despite the film’s mixed reception). Nothing else is offered, which is a shame for enthusiasts although unsurprising considering the relatively low profile of the film (for a Kubrick picture). Although one could imagine, say, Criterion turning out a good special edition, it’s unlikely to happen. The fact that the length of the film would inevitably require a second disc would also present an obstacle.
The film is ravishing, a near-masterpiece, and its low profile (especially in the UK, where it has been unavailable for years) renders it something of a “lost classic”. The first half is an amused, and amusing, look at 18th Century mores – the second half is as tragic and human as anything Kubrick produced. Fans of pure cinema will also find it a treasure trove of detail, beautifully scored, well acted and visually breathtaking. This is the first release of the film for home video which can begin to compete with a cinema presentation of the film, and extras or no we should be duly grateful! Highly recommended to cinephiles everywhere.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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