Kubrick’s understated and underrated costume-drama is, to me, his greatest accomplishment, and possibly the most beautiful period film ever made.
Dir. Stanley Kubrick
1975 | UK/USA | Drama | 184 mins | 1.66:1 | English, German & French
PG (passed clean) for some violence and partial nudity
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee
Plot: An Irish rogue wins the heart of a rich widow and assumes her dead husband’s position in 18th Century aristocracy.
Awards: Won 4 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Adapted Score. Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Source: Warner Bros (Park Circus)
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published on 5 Nov 2015)
This is a film that many would not even think of attempting. It is three hours in length, based on a novel written in 1844 documenting the rise and fall of an Irishman who becomes part of 18th century English nobility, and it stars no one popular.
But there is one compelling reason that dwarves all excuses not to watch the film – it is directed by the late Stanley Kubrick. The director of influential masterpieces such as Paths of Glory (1957), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick is easily one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Barry Lyndon is probably Kubrick’s most underrated film, an extraordinary picture that so vividly evokes the time and mood of a distant past that one might have been inclined to believe that he had actually taken the hassle to travel back in time to film this.
Shot by cinematographer John Alcott, who won one of the film’s four Oscars, Barry Lyndon is as beautiful as films get. Picturesque views of medieval England are captured with a wide lens that frequently zooms away from a focal point, giving (literally) eye-opening visuals of classy architecture and elegant costumes lived in and worn respectively by royalty.
“If ever I should meet him again you will find out who is the best man of the two. I’ll fight him sword or pistol, captain as he is.”
Tremendous effort was made to film most of the interior scenes in natural light and in the enchanting hour when everything radiates with golden perfection. Yet the most technically impressive aspect of Barry Lyndon remains to be the filming of interiors at night with the creative use of strategically-positioned candlelights that lend an almost warm, surreal touch to the film’s already organic quality.
Ryan O’Neal plays the titular character Barry Lyndon opposite Marisa Berenson, who is remarkable in her role as the widowed Lady Lyndon. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s picaresque novel and written for the screen by Kubrick himself, the film is smartly split into two major halves – the unexpected rise of Redmond Barry who later becomes Barry Lyndon, and his inevitable decline triggered by his acrimonious relationship with his stepson Lord Bullingdon.
Despite the subject matter, Barry Lyndon is more engaging than one would expect. Kubrick’s use of classical music is a huge reason why, and it could not have been more apt here with great pieces like Handel’s ‘Sarabande’ and selections from Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert and Bach. Other factors include the inclusion of several sequences of farcical duels between Barry and his nemesis, and war battles which feature brilliant tracking shots.
The works of Kubrick are mostly devoid of real emotions; they are mechanical, cold observations of society that are seldom optimistic. Barry Lyndon is no exception. Its frozen characters seem unable to dictate their lives; they feel trapped in Kubrick’s world. Even so, it takes a supreme filmmaker like him to make us realize that however cruel a world may be, it is perfect for us. Man doesn’t deserve any better or less.