Reviews - Barry Lyndon
Reviewed By John Stakes
Poorly received critically and by the public upon its release in 1975 there is no doubt now that the film ranks amongst Kubrick’s best, and the intervening years have, if anything, stimulated such favourable critical re-appraisal, as to elevate the film to the level of masterpiece if still a somewhat flawed one.
Taken from a little-known Thackeray novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” (and there was plenty of it both good and bad), the story setting starts in Ireland in the 1750s, and charts the rise and fall of Redmond Barry, a journeyman opportunist, and ends some thirty years later with the now disgraced Barry being exiled by the Lyndon family and with his lower left leg amputated.
The film is teeming with stock British character actors in deliciously scripted cameo parts. The leads are Ryan O’Neal (with an Irish accent which during the course of this three hours’ epic, crossed the Atlantic more frequently than QM2), and Michael Hordern as the film’s narrator, striking just the right slightly sardonic tone. Barry, the anti-hero, was an Irishman completely lacking any blarney, and it was due completely to Hordern’s narration rather than O’Neal’s acting and script, that we were to learn of Barry’s ruthless drive and ambition to gain acceptance into Georgian lower aristocracy.
Female interest came in the form of Marisa Berenson as the soon to be widowed Lady Lyndon when her husband suffers a consumptive fit following a riposte from Barry. In almost indecent haste she falls for Barry as soon as he flashes his dreamy eyes at her. Their brief courtship is conducted wordlessly and slowly, Kubrick extracting the maximum impact from their eye gazing ritual which reminded this reviewer of the chess scene from The Thomas Crown Affair. Whilst O’Neal conveyed the necessary selfishness and softness in his seductive quests, there were a few occasions when his sparse script simply required him to say sorry in order to gain instant forgiveness which, in the absence of any apparent magnetism, stretched credulity somewhat.
That quibble apart, the film was full of memorable scenes, in compositions befitting the works of Gainsborough and Hogarth, and set in some of the most breathtaking stately homes and gardens locations at home and abroad to be ever caught on film. The cinematography lucidly evoked Georgian aristocratic life with its façade of mannered gentility, masking the hypocrisy, cruelty and corruption beneath. Vanity Fair it was not.
The costumes were ravishing. The period feel was enhanced by the colour photography using ground-breaking lenses from the Apollo space mission. The actors were meticulously positioned as if about to be captured on canvas particularly during interior filming often lit by natural and even candle light.
Kubrick’s reverse-zoom technique was frequently deployed and was used on Barry to create the impression that he was merely a cog in the wheel of fortune rather than a man capable of shaping his own destiny. Perhaps this explained why O’Neal sported a lost soul look throughout.
In 1975 the film deservedly won Oscars for best art direction, cinematography, and musical score, with Kubrick himself being nominated in three categories. An artistically magnificent film which has ripened and matured with age.
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