While watching Barry Lyndon, I was torn between disliking the protagonist and sympathizing with him. I was rooting against him in one scene, wishing for his demise and then quickly wishing for him to succeed in another. Stanley Kubrick’s film is many things, but it is surely a masterpiece of the highest level. Kubrick challenges us with our feelings for Mr. Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in that he is a lout, but also deserving of pity. That he is divisive is what makes the film so propulsive. It’s a maddening, gorgeous epic that stands with the other great works Stanley Kubrick made and is one of his two or three best films in my opinion, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). I’m only a recent convert to this one though. I’ll admit that when I first saw the film 10 years ago, it did not grab me. This time, however, it grabbed me by the throat and did not let go and had me thinking about it for days.
Kubrick wrote his screenplay based upon William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon. On the whole, the film is divided into two parts. In the first, titled “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon”, we are introduced to Redmond Barry, played by Ryan O’Neal, in 1750’s
. We see his first exploits at love, his challenge to a fellow suitor, and his enrollment in the army, including his involvement in the Seven Years War. Through some fortuitous events, he comes under the mentorship of Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), whereupon he meets, courts, and weds the beautiful Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Ryan O’Neal, for me, is a fascinating choice to play Redmond Barry, and probably a very calculated one by Kubrick. O’Neal’s screen presence here, to me, is somewhat inarticulate and bland. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, it’s that he doesn’t seem to fit. His accent (for playing an Irishman) is weak at best. He usually has the same blank expression and seems to be acting scene to scene with uneven results. What’s fascinating is that all of this works toward the film’s end goal. Redmond Barry is basically a fortuitous doofus. He has no money of own so he cheats, lies and schemes his way through life, and through mostly luck ends up in a place of seeming prosperity. O’Neal actually portrays and enhances these characteristics through his acting or lack thereof. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a lead protagonist, one in which I can think of few that compare to it. There are a few moments in the first half of the film that are comical, featuring Kubrick’s dark and playful sense of humor. In the funniest scene in the film, Redmond Barry dresses up as Chevalier de Balibari, unannounced to us the audience. It’s funny because the scene is so dryly filmed, yet is hilarious due to O’Neal’s get-up. Ireland
In the second half of the film, the tone turns darker though, as the title card reads, “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon”. Here Barry Lyndon gets his comeuppance, something that I was waiting for with anticipation and I generally felt like he was getting what he deserved. And yet, I found that I had some pains of sympathy for him, as the marriage crumbles, fortunes are erased, and family accidents occur. I wasn’t expecting to feel as much as I did for him, but the film becomes so sad and melancholy that it’s hard not to feel pity. It’s not only a sympathy for him, but it’s a sympathy for the entire family as he brings down their name and fortune with such tragic consequences. I don’t know if there’s another Kubrick film that involves the viewer as emotionally as Barry Lyndon. Paths of Glory (1957) has moments that are very humanistic, but there is a definite detachment of feeling in Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange (1971). I think overall the themes in Barry Lyndon of being a pawn in life, that no matter how hard you try to control your destiny, there is a larger hand at work is similar to his other films, but there is the human edge and tragedy to it here that are more emphasized.
Visually, Barry Lyndon is one of the most beautiful films ever shot. I would probably put it in the top 5 best photographed color films of all time. Also on my list would be Black Narcissus (1947, Powell and Pressburger), The Red Shoes (1948, Powell and Pressburger), Days of Heaven (1978, Terrence Malick), and The Double Life of Veronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski). John Alcott, cinematographer here as well as on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining (1980) does a masterful job at framing exterior shots and lighting interior shots using candles alone in many scenes. Apparently at the time, Alcott and Kubrick utilized some unique cameras to capture these low-lit scenes. They really stand out and are a beautiful addition to the film. Many scenes are reminiscent of paintings and the period detail is in a word, exquisite. I noticed that there are numerous moments at the beginning of a scene where the camera will be pulled in close and then slowly pull back showing you the wider angle of the scene, simultaneously giving you the impression of grasping the full details of the frame while giving one the feeling that the entire frame is slipping away. Kubrick utilized this in other films as well, like A Clockwork Orange. There’s also a short reverse tracking shot during a war scene inside a bombed-out building that recalls Kubrick’s long, iconic reverse tracking shot in Paths of Glory. Kubrick was a master director, making brilliant films in numerous genres that are equally compelling: war, film noir, sci-fi, period piece, thriller etc. It’s remarkable that through all of them, the common threads of technique, attention to detail, and motifs are shared, creating a cohesive canon of films that vie with any other director worthy of being called the greatest. Barry Lyndon is one of his crowning achievements.