Slow, somber, and subtle, Stanley Kubrick’s three-hour historical drama Barry Lyndon, adapted from an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, isn’t just one of the most unusual films of the 1970s—it is, in many ways, one of the most unusual films ever released by a major Hollywood studio. Arty and meditative from its first frame to its last, the picture is more of a cerebral exercise than an entertainment experience—envision a serious of gorgeous paintings accompanied by mesmerizing classical music and a wry narration track that contextualizes onscreen events, and you’ll come close to imagining what it’s like to watch Barry Lyndon. Even the film’s principal actors, Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, are featured as objects, their beautiful faces and figures used as blank slates onto which Kubrick projects his (and Thackeray’s) timeless themes of gamesmanship and greed. By reducing the importance of his actors to visual impact, Kubrick amplifies that Barry Lyndon is auteur filmmaking in the purest sense—even though the writer/director/producer didn’t generate the underlying material, he orchestrates every miniscule detail. (There’s a reason the movie took a reported 300 days to shoot, an eternity compared to normal production schedules.)
Set throughout Europe in the middle-to-late 1700s, the story follows Irishman Redmond Barry (O’Neal) as he seeks his fortune. The synchronicity between Kubrick’s dry humor and Thackeray’s narrative becomes evident during an early scene featuring a highwayman. The robber stops Barry on a remote path in a forest, then steals Barry’s horse and money, but the whole exchange is conducted with the high language and perfect manners of gentlemen. Courtly criminality—could there be a better metaphor with which to communicate Kubrick’s cynical worldview? After being stripped of his humble resources, Barry transitions to a series of military adventures, but he eventually flees the military and bewitches a fabulously wealthy Countess, Lady Lyndon (Berenson). The minor obstacle of her husband is quickly dispatched when Barry’s brazen play for Lady Lyndon’s affections causes the husband to die of a coronary. Barry installs himself as the man’s replacement, but Barry’s social climb commences a new series of travails.
Even though the film sprawls across three hours and moves at a stately pace, Barry Lyndon is hypnotic. Working with the genius cameraman John Alcott, Kubrick designs one beguiling visual after another, using deft tricks to create verisimilitude suggestive of the story’s era—most of the shots are static (and when they’re not, the camera moves are generally gradual and understated). Further, in the film’s most talked-about flourish, Kubrick and Alcott employ specially designed lenses to shoot nighttime interior scenes with only candlelight for illumination. Every sensation that meets the eye in Barry Lyndon casts a spell, from the spectacular Old Europe locations to the ornate costumes and hairstyles; better still, Kubrick merges images, music, and narration with symphonic precision. Whether the movie actually packs an emotional punch is a subjective matter—as is the larger question of whether such a story needs to pack an emotional punch—but the consummate artistry of the endeavor is undeniable. Whatever its shortcomings, not the least of which is O’Neal’s beautifully vacuous presence in the title role, Barry Lyndon captures moods and sensations virtually no other film has before or since.
Barry Lyndon: RIGHT ON