Barry Lyndon Review
Barry Lyndon is one of Stanley Kubrick’s less well-known films. It’s also one of his best ones. An adaptation of William Thackeray novel, the film follows the rise to fortune of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), a poor Irish man, from the 1750s onwards. It’s an entrancing and memorable watch, particularly for its spectacular cinematography as well as the entrancing inevitability of Barry’s fate.
This tale of rags to riches (and return to rags again) makes for a compelling examination of Georgian society. Redmond (later Barry) moves through all its spheres: the country village, army, high society, nobility… Yet everywhere he goes proves disappointing, corrupted - full of hypocrisy and deceit. There’s Nora (Gay Hamilton), a young love who dumps him as soon as the promise of a prosperous marriage comes along; battles that are both painfully tragic and absurd; entitled, pompous, self-absorbed nobles.
The whole story is narrated by a third-person, omniscient (perhaps unreliable?) narrator, whose dry humour adds much to the joy of the film. Thanks to this, the film’s first act is frequently funny, and generally diverting. The second half is entrancing, but not as pleasant to watch. In its opening minutes, Kubrick promptly makes us lose any sympathy for his main character. It’s a bit of a shock to realise, an hour and a half in, that we’d never asked ourselves whether Barry is in fact worth liking. We do end up spending quite a bit of time with him - at 3 hours’ running time, the film has the length of an epic. (Though this is not unusual for Kubrick).
Then again, when you’re watching images this beautiful, you don’t see the time go by. Kubrick’s cinematography is simply sumptuous. Think adroitly framed, very wide shots - a small carriage like a coloured dot travelling through rolling, bright green hills; a dramatic duel taking place in a third of the screen, the rest displaying its rustling natural backdrop. There’s also the extraordinary skill involved in shooting numerous scenes by natural candlelight - giving the upper classes the aura mystery and depravity they come to represent in the story.
Incredible work has also been done on costumes and sets. Everything looks authentic, from the loaf of bread sitting on the table in Barry’s mother’s cottage to the intricate, stilted, stuffed great houses of the rich. There are also spectacular re-creations of battles; their scale is often staggering. Frankly, the whole endeavour is staggering. The sheer number of locations which must have carefully been decked out in accurate period decoration is mind-boggling.
Then there’s Kubrick’s unique, distinctive direction; cameras which move calmly to reveal that a situation is not what we thought it was; slow scenes filmed with an incredible amount of detail, while judicious cuts move the plot ahead quickly. Kubrick is also brilliant in choosing his backdrops for key moments: a dramatic duel (there are a lot of duels in Barry Lyndon) takes place in an abandoned church, straw carpeting its floor, pigeons flapping around frantically. There are also stirring close-ups capturing the subtle turns of emotion on O’Neal’s and Marisa Berenson’s faces (the latter plays Lady Lyndon, Barry’s wife).
Sure, there are a few things that go a little wrong - some of them to do with the source material. A turn of events late in the film is rather reminiscent of Gone with the Wind. Thackeray published his novel nearly a hundred years before Margaret Mitchell’s, but the latter’s movie adaptation came first. As a result, the inclusion of the plot point feels a little contrived. The soundtrack, sourced entirely from period composers, is enchanting - though also repetitive. You’ll have it ringing in your ears for hours afterwards, both because it’s excellent, and also because you’ll have heard it so darn much. And though it was likely done deliberately, there wasn’t much to like in Lady Lyndon’s near muteness - we need a little more from her, even if it’s not entirely clear what.
Barry Lyndon is an excellent film, a masterclass in the art of the period drama and certainly too little known. As such, it’s a great thing that the BFI is re-releasing it in cinemas. With such stellar direction and cinematography, it is really worth seeing it on the big screen.