Barry Lyndon is natural social climber, his every move a calculated step to gain status and wealth. We’re not supposed to like someone like this, but he somehow captivates our attention. Barry Lyndon is not so much driven by plot or character. Mostly, it is guided by an omniscient storytelling voice that Kubrick masterfully employs to provide us with a glimpse into 18th century European high society. And all through the life and times of Barry Lyndon.
- Director: Stanley Kubrick
- Writer: William Makepeace Thackeray
- Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Gay Hamilton, Godfrey Quigley, Steven Berkoff
Redman Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is a rebellious youth whose troubles only begin when he falls in love with his cousin, Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton). Nora flirts with him but instead pursues a marriage with an English soldier, John Quin (Leonard Rossiter). This leads to a duel, with Barry being forced to flee after he is made to believe that he’s killed Quin. Barry’s journey goes on to include stints with the British and Prussian armies, a brief assignment as a spy, a short career as a gambler, and a marriage to a wealthy noblewoman named Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Before long, there is another duel and other tragic consequences.
As a fictional account set within a historical backdrop, the first act of Barry Lyndon feels like a cross between Forrest Gump and a more serious period piece. But more than being just historic and lightly humorous, Barry’s adventures are cloaked satirical observances of high society. Barry gets caught up in the Seven Years’ War and even finds himself receiving special award from Frederick the Great after saving a Prussian Captain’s life. Beyond merely presenting Barry in a series of improbable appearances at large events, Kubrick’s film follows Barry’s shortcomings to their tragic conclusions. In a way, despite the fact that Barry’s conflicts are mostly self-imposed, his ambitions nevertheless resonate with the parts of us that are well-intentioned but deeply flawed. However, Barry’s ultimate objective is never quite laid out for us to understand. Not surprisingly, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon was called the first novel without a hero.
As a storytelling work of art, Barry Lyndon counts on various elements that make it a pure joy to experience. Kubrick’s pacing and his use of long lenses provides ample time and space to present rich detail. John Alcott’s cinematography is impossible not appreciate, not just because of how it captures numerous panoramic landscapes, but also for his use of fast lenses to shoot interiors using available light only. The narration by Michael Hordern is perfect in its ability to sustain a literary quality throughout, and as a period piece, the costumes, the sets, and the dialogue are all beyond convincing. The acting is superb, but Ryan O’Neal’s performance is especially notable for conveying a wide range of emotions with minimal expression. Even when feeling anger, it registers on his face in a way that is barely noticeable.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
With great insight, Ebert’s review makes an immediate observation that instantly allows us to further appreciate Barry Lyndon, stating that Barry Lyndon is indeed “a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness.” After struggling to find redeeming qualities in Barry’s character, Ebert adds to my initial fascination with this film by reminding us that Barry is without morals, character or judgment, unrepentant, and unredeemed. After first watching Barry Lyndon, I was convinced that Ryan O’Neal is perfect for this role, and Ebert’s own articulations further convince me that he indeed holds an “eerie clam” that works. With a somewhat provocative tone, Ebert asks, “How many directors would have had Kubrick’s confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man’s rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it?” Knowing that Kubrick shot this film in 300 days only makes his approach to this subject matter more intriguing. Ebert’s review is among his best, and the following statement best summarizes this film, “This must be one of the most beautiful films ever made, and yet the beauty isn’t in the service of emotion.”
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Barry Lyndon? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Chimes at Midnight
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon this week, he now has 337 under his belt and less than 30 films left to go.