Barry Lyndon

Studio: Criterion

Oct 30, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Arguing over the best Stanley Kubrick film is a pointless endeavor because more than half of his full-length output could take top spot. Barry Lyndon is something of a latecomer in this regard, having seen its reputation increase steadily since a commercially disappointing release in 1975, but Kubrick’s venture into classical period drama is every bit as good as the best work he’s produced.

Based on William Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, Ryan O’Neal stars as Redmond Barry, an Irish chancer who rises from humble beginnings and falls back into them after quite a journey. O’Neal has taken a lot of flak for a performance lacking in spark, his Barry seeming to walk through a life of duels and military warfare, gambling and womanizing, and eventually a brief spell amongst the nobility, all in the pursuit of a personal fortune that remains just out of reach.

It’s true he doesn’t exactly light up the screen, but there’s a bland charisma to O’Neal that’s ideally suited to the role. If he doesn’t dig into the character, the character doesn’t really dig into life. Unfolding over the course of more than three hours, Kubrick’s film is a stately masterpiece not given to overt displays of emotion, or even much in the way of an attempt to draw the audience in. Instead, it’s something to be quietly bowled over by.

As with pretty much everything Kubrick made, technological brilliance is on display once again. Determined not to mimic the fake sets of standard period dramas, Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott strove for a natural look. Using cameras originally developed by NASA to capture footage in the reduced light of the moon landings, several scenes are shot by candlelight alone. Where that didn’t prove possible, the lighting was structured to give the effect anyway.

Even more impressive are the wide angle long shots sweeping across the fields, estates, and battle sites of Europe. The effect is akin to a stroll around an exhibition of 18th Century art, the pictures laid out for the audience to approach and admire, and never quite touch.

Which is not to say Barry Lyndon is an unmoving affair. As Barry scraps and scrapes, treats people badly and ultimately falls from a grace he didn’t have at the start, and only tenuously held for a spell in the middle, it’s hard not to get swept up in the sheer grandeur of the affair. There’s just nothing as tawdry as hot-headed emotion to get in the way of beauty.

Which is exactly why O’Neal, served by a quite brilliant cast of accomplished character actors, works so well. He’s not a deep man experiencing deep things. He’s an opportunist skating across the surface of life. Kubrick pulls back far enough to show us the full scope of that surface, and how little his protagonist manages to scratch into it. And it’s oh so easy to get lost in the beauty of the surface of Barry Lyndon.

Author rating: 10/10

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