‘It was in the reign of George II that the above-named personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.’
I’m not quite sure how to start this review, because I feel that nothing I say will be able to truly capture how strongly I felt about Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 18th century adventure saga, Barry Lyndon. I’ll aim to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of seeing it, but I will be discussing some overarching plot points. I was lucky enough that my first ever viewing of this initially underrated masterpiece was at one of the BFI’s screenings at HOME Manchester, as part of a special restoration and nationwide re-release throughout July and August. The film was accompanied by an introduction and a post-screening discussion with Kubrick expert Peter Kramer, as well as featuring a short intermission halfway through as Kubrick originally intended. These extra touches ensured the screening was a hugely immersive, authentic and memorable experience, and I’m so happy to say that Barry Lyndon is undoubtedly one of my new favourite Kubrick films.
Split into two parts, the film addresses the rise and fall of the titular Barry Lyndon, née Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), an Irish adventurer who finds himself in a series of precarious positions in his numerous plights to find love, companionship, wealth, power and pleasure at various stages of his life. Lyndon’s character arc is easily one of the most compelling of the film, and indeed of any film I’ve seen recently, displaying an expertly-crafted transition from a lovelorn youth, to reluctant but heroic soldier, to travelling games master and finally to affluent, power-crazed family man and estate owner. Ryan O’Neal’s multi-faceted performance as the many faces of Barry Lyndon is something to behold, a true career-defining accomplishment which strengthened the film’s addictive nature. For me, however, Marisa Berenson’s portrayal of Lady Lyndon, the wealthy widow Lyndon marries in Part II, is the film’s true crowning glory as far as performances go. Melancholic and morose, Lady Lyndon appears detached and disillusioned with her neglectful husband for much of the latter half of the film, instead devoting herself to her children, Lord Bullingdon of her previous marriage, and young Bryan, her first and only child with Barry. Her maudlin nature only increases with the progression of the film and its unfortunate events, and it is throughout her tragic journey that Lady Lyndon truly breaks the audience’s heart. I felt so deeply involved in the story of the protagonists that it was easy to forget I was simply watching a film at times, and that kind of escapism is the very pinnacle of excellent cinema for me.
As with any Kubrick film, tension plays an instrumental role in what makes this film so transfixing, yet it is never overused or self-indulgent. Scenes which spring to mind are the various pistol ‘duels’ which take place between characters in different sections of the film, in order to settle disputes and restore balance between conflicting parties. The most notable of these scenes takes place between Lord Bullingdon and Barry Lyndon upon Lyndon’s estranged stepson’s return to the family home, after learning of his mother’s poor mental health following the tragedies the family has faced. Through careful pacing, unexpected turns and phenomenal editing, Kubrick creates undoubtedly the most suspenseful moment of the film, drawing attention once again to the excellent characterisation of these two enemies. As well as following the tale of our not-so-lovable rogue protagonist, great attention is paid to the effects of his behaviour on his new found family, sparking sour and strained relationships which climax in heated and unpredictable confrontations such as this one.
I must touch on an observation made by Peter Kramer in his introduction to the film, which I found particularly interesting. He pointed out the way in which the transition from themes of war to marriage in the two parts of the film mirrors the same transition in Kubrick’s overall filmography. Indeed, with war and conflict-related classics such as 1957’s Paths of Glory, 1960’s Spartacus and 1964’s Dr. Strangelove comprising much of his early work, there is a noticeable contrast (minus some exceptions) against his later efforts which revolve primarily around marriage, either overtly or sub-textually, such as the aforementioned Barry Lyndon, 1980’s The Shining and the 1999 posthumously-released sexual odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut. What intrigues me about the contrast of war and marriage is the links that can be made between them, particularly in the case of Barry Lyndon, in which the marriage of Barry and Lady Lyndon can be viewed as a war of sorts, as well as the internal conflict endured by the pair in the latter portion of the film’s running time.
I’m stating the obvious by making a point of the exquisite beauty of Barry Lyndon, but I feel it must be discussed due to its contribution to the film’s visual depth and other-worldliness. I would usually only attribute ‘other-worldliness’ to a sci-fi production, but I feel it most definitely applies in the case of Barry Lyndon, due to the vibrant and majestic picture of 18th-century England that Kubrick paints. Of course, the film is infamous for its use of natural lighting, and Kubrick’s specially-created large aperture lenses which optimise the heavy use of candlelight in many of its scenes, once again highlighting the level of innovation and creativity which helped craft one of the most visually impressive films of the 1970s. The use of these lenses added hugely to the feeling of intimacy and voyeurism the film possesses, allowing viewers to lose themselves entirely in the world before them. I was frequently enraptured by the stunningly beautiful art direction, with the period costumes and makeup creating a complete and utter treat for the eyes.
I wasn’t sure what to expect before seeing Barry Lyndon, knowing very little about its production or critical reception. I left the cinema having been deeply moved on many different emotional levels, by a gorgeously transcendent, indulgent and thematically-rich piece of cinema, one that I hope to revisit time and time again in future. Its three hour running time was a breeze, and it almost felt strange leaving behind the world of Barry Lyndon with which I felt so involved. Its impressive classical score only further enhanced the experience, delivering even more emotional resonance in crucial moments. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see it for the first time on the big screen, and would advise everyone else to do the same if they get chance, but be ready to laugh and cry in equal measure. Once again, Kubrick has proved himself to be the most mind-blowing of filmmakers.