Barry Lyndon (1975)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenwriters: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Michael Hordern, Marissa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Leon Vitali, Marie Kean
Stanley Kubrick is synonymous with some of the greatest cinematic achievements of the past 70 years, be that his takes on the war genre with Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, his presentation of satire with Dr Strangelove, horror with The Shining or sci-fi with his magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1975 saw the great auteur present his take on the period drama with the 18th century epic Barry Lyndon, adapted from William Makepeace Thackery’s story “The Luck Of Barry Lyndon”. One of Kubrick’s most overlooked pieces, Barry Lyndon is truly a marvelous film from a filmmaker like no other, one who at the time was operating at the very top of his legendary, cinema-defining output.
Barry Lyndon has developed a cult following over the years and often appears high up within rankings of Kubrick’s work, as well as lists outlining the greatest films of all time. While it was a moderate success upon release, grossing $20 million from a $12 million budget, it has well and truly stood the test of time, its legend only increasing as the years go by. The Guardian gave the film 5 stars in a 40th anniversary retrospective, with similar praise from Empire and Little White Lies. Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian noted that Kubrick “brings about a slow, mysterious shift from comedy to tragedy; a tidal advance and retreat in fortune”.
The visuals of this fascinating period drama are, in particular, worthy of high praise. Much of the credit in this regard must go to Kubrick’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer John Alcott. Kubrick’s partnership with Alcott began with 2001 in 1968, and the cinematographer’s work here resulted in well deserved BAFTA and Oscar wins for achievements in cinematography. The great man’s work has frequently been described as a work of art in its own right, each frame presented as if a painting, making wonderful use of landscapes (be that the Ireland of Barry’s childhood or the European countryside we encounter later on) and candlelight in particular, the latter evoking an atmosphere in Barry Lyndon like few others have ever accomplished. This is certainly not the first or last Kubrick film to have astounding visuals, but it is undeniably one of the greatest.
The performances across the board are as one would expect: tremendous. Ryan O’Neal plays the titular hero with a sense of swagger and vulnerability. In a role that is relatively silent, as the film makes heavy use of Michael Hordern’s near-perfect narration, O’Neal’s facial expressions and body language carry a lot of his performance; and to superb effect. Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon is also terrific in her support, her character initially loving Barry but later demanding a sense of sadness and isolation that the actress terrifically delivers upon. Marie Kean’s firery turn as Barry’s mother Belle is another highlight, while Leon Vitali as the antagonist of the film’s second half, Lord Bullingdon, is also immaculate in his portrayal.
The pacing of Barry Lyndon is, however, perhaps one of its most notable towering achievements. Historical epics can, for some, be inaccessible due to slow pacing and length, yet while this is a lengthy film (at close to 3 and a half hours) it never feels pedestrian, each moment imbuing the next with a sense of purpose and meaning. In Barry Lyndon we are swept along by some masterful storytelling from one of the finest directors of all time, working from one of the most interesting and well-told stories of the previous century, and none of the power of that combination is lost in watching it. The film’s non-traditional approach to a well trodden genre is its greatest masterstroke – we aren’t treated to the pomp and ceremony we might be accustomed to, and the rise and fall of our hero means there are constant surprises in store. The tension Kubrick creates in particular for the duel sequences, which bookend the tale, is unparalleled in the genre, the climactic duel specifically being a truly spellbinding cinematic feat.
Make no mistake, Barry Lyndon is one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films, its status as a less celebrated offering perhaps coming as the result of its position of release being between the vastly more popular A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. This historical epic/period drama is a remarkable construction, and one that more than holds up in the canon of all time classics.
One of the most stunning films ever made, Barry Lyndon remains a must-watch for anyone interested in the form.