Barry Lyndon (1975): Another feast for the eyes from Stanley Kubrick

posted 6/8/09 on 2009: A Film Odyssey

Let’s say that like many people across the globe, you’re a moderate Stanley Kubrick fan. You’ve laughed at the drill sergeant’s taunting in Full Metal Jacket (1987). You’ve sat in awe (and maybe gotten bored at a few parts) watching the operatic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). You’ve grimaced at the joyous brutality in A Clockwork Orange (1971), and been chilled at the thought of nuclear proliferation explored in Dr. Strangelove (1964).

But have you seen Barry Lyndon?

Kubrick’s 1975 classic is widely recognized as his most underrated (and therefore under-watched) movie. I realize that during the school year, college types are constantly busy and really only have time to watch the safest bets, the most talked-about old movies (if they watch old movies at all).

But now it’s summer — time to kick back and catch up on what you missed. That’s why I recommend your next rental (after you watch Gold Diggers of 1933) be Barry Lyndon. Just make sure you have a good three hours to burn on this adaptation of William Thackeray’s 1844 novel.


THE FILM

The title character, born Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil), is a low-born trickster raised in the Irish countryside of the mid-18th century. His endless ambition to prove his manhood leads him on adventures throughout Europe.

His flight into the unsuspecting world begins after defeating an English military captain in a duel hatched to secure the affection of his first love: his cousin Nora. Barry will not be disgraced by this uppity outsider who views him as a mere boy, but when he achieves satisfaction, he must escape for fear of arrest. That leads him into the British Army, in the midst of the Seven Years’ War with France. Unwilling to die for England, he deserts into Prussia (Britain’s ally in the conflict). One thing leads to another, and by fooling enough important people into their confidence, the Irish peasant finds himself a nobleman.

But his fortune peaks mid-story, and you can guess what that means . . .

What Barry Lyndon lacks in the creepy surrealism characteristic of many Kubrick films, it compensates with graceful imagery. With its wide shots of the Irish countryside, the opening sequence sets the aesthetic tone for the rest of the film. Kubrick delights in starting small — zoomed in on a small detail — and then pulling away gradually until the picture becomes long shot framed perfectly like a neoclassical landscape painting, still figures and all.

Michael Hordern’s narration serves the multiple purposes of catching us up on character motives, making social commentary, and — sometimes — spoiling the plot turns ahead. Like a Greek play’s chorus, the point of the storytelling is not to surprise us with twists but to keep us guessing at how characters’ relationships blossom (or rot).

Also worth noting is Kubrick’s frequent juxtaposition of fury and calm. Often a conflict arises that churns for some time, characters taking verbal jabs at each other over the course of a few meetings, which then boils into outright violence — followed by a quick cut and a few minutes of serenity before restarting the cycle.

The same question always comes up when considering three-hour movies: did it really need to be that long? In this case, certainly. Barry Lyndon takes us through most of a lifetime — a turbulent, eventful lifetime at that — and would have felt rushed if it followed the Bam! Pow! efficiency of most films. The beauty and epic scope would be lost.

While I’m glad that most movies don’t pass the two-hour mark, the ones that do (and are successful) can suck you into a full, rich story that lingers in your mind. That’s definitely the case for this tale of a man whose fortune rises and falls for the same reason.


SPECIAL FEATURES

Sadly, the pickins here are mighty slim.

  • Theatrical trailer (same as posted above)
  • The long, long list of awards Barry Lyndon won
  • Your choice of English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese subtitles

It could be that the disc from Rentertainment is outdated and that there’s a newer one with more special features, but don’t quote me on that.


STATS

  • Won the Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Music
  • 11 other award wins and 11 other nominations
  • Rated 94% on RottenTomatoes
  • Running time: 184 minutes
  • Rated PG