By Joshua Hultberg
Barry Lyndon is potentially Stanley Kubrick’s greatest, and sadly, most ignored films. When it was released in 1975 a large number of reviewers were unimpressed “with the film’s lack of witty or memorable dialogue, its lack of provocative ideas, its lack of character development and an emotionally engaging central performance” (John Hofsess, NYT 01/11/1975). In the ensuing decades Barry Lyndon has gained critical recognition but still is relatively unknown when compared with other Kubrick films e.g. A Clockwork Orange, Paths of Glory, or Dr. Strangelove.
Barry Lyndon is more than a period piece with picaresque elements. The film is based on William Thackeray’s novel- considered by some to be the first published novel in the English language with an anti-hero protagonist. Lyndon is an Irish fortune hunter, gambler, scoundrel, ladies’ man, duelist, and all around rogue of the highest caliber yet Kubrick’s film is not a rollicking swashbuckler. Barry Lyndon is an excellent study in the darker aspects of the human condition: suffering, loss, isolation, avarice, bereavement, ambition, and jealousy. The viewer watches Lyndon’s progress from Irish country gentlemen to soldier during the Seven Years War, to gambler, to a suitor wooing a wealthy widow and enduring the repercussions of his selfish actions. During the film there is a continuous feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop- for Lyndon to receive comeuppance for his moral corruption. It is testament to his skill as a director that Kubrick keeps the film from devolving into melodrama. He allows much of the film to develop at its own pace. This does make for a lengthy cinematic experience at 184 minutes, but Kubrick and Director of Photography John Alcott, BSC created a masterpiece that bears repeated viewings.
Visually Barry Lyndon is captivating. Before filming even began, Kubrick studied the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and the pastoral works of Gainsborough’s contemporaries. The influence of these artists is seen in every frame, set-piece, and piece of costume. Barry Lyndon was filmed almost entirely with natural lighting. All candlelit scenes were source lit. A custom lens was constructed for John Alcott for these scenes and even today the cinematography in Barry Lyndon uses the largest aperture setting-(f0.7)- in the history of cinema. The use of this setting meant that actors’ movements during interior scenes were severely restricted. Any sudden or rapid movements would have appeared blurry and essentially ruined the shot. This is a factor in the sense that Kubrick and Alcott have constructed tableaux- paintings come to life on the screen. The tableaux allow the viewer to absorb all the details, to notice subtleties in acting, and they add to the languorous tone of Barry Lyndon. Even the sets were from the period. Alcott said, “We didn’t build any sets whatsoever. All (of) the rooms exist inside actual houses in Ireland and the southwest of England.” The Baroque soundtrack-unfortunately long out of print-adds another layer to the viewing experience. Handel’s Sarabande is the recurring theme in Barry Lyndon and it is used to great effect. The tempo matches the pace of the film and creates a sense of impending doom when heard.
A problem reviewers-past and present- have with Barry Lyndon is the casting. Many feel that Ryan O’Neal’s acting was wooden and his accent was poor and uneven. While O’Neal might not have been the best choice for the title role, he does bring an appropriate amount of “smarm” to the role. His Lyndon has a sleazy quality- revealing the type of man who would lie, cheat, and steal to meet his selfish needs and often does. An interesting fact; Ryan O’Neal- fresh from Paper Moon (1973) - was not the first choice for the role of Lyndon-Robert Redford was. If Redford had been cast, then Redford’s Lyndon would have been a much different character. Redford would not have been able to remove his natural charm for a role such as needed for Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon is currently not available as a criterion Edition- a
real shame. The current DVD Edition looks better than the VHS edition but the
sound is muffled. Sound effects and the soundtrack are in serious need of a
digital re-mastering. The lack of a solid commentary track is also disappointing.
Hopefully a new edition will come out but while Barry Lyndon is still
relatively ignored, chances are slim.