Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film, “Barry Lyndon,” may not be his most ambitious film, but it is in no way less impressive than what is expected of Kubrick.
As adapted by Kubrick from William Makepeace Thackeray’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” the film tells the dryly humored life story of Barry Lyndon, an Irish commoner who will soon find himself in the middle of the Prussian Army.
It is Kubrick’s own brand of Oscar bait, and he reeled them in. The film won Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Musical Score at the Academy Awards. Kubrick himself was nominated for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture for his work on the film.
Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), is an 18th century Irishman of poor upbringing, looking for a safe refuge after he is tricked into hiding for supposedly killing John Quin, the fiancé of the promiscuous Nora Brady. Barry’s a likely suspect as Quin is the only man standing between Barry and his affections for Nora.
Barry, having been sent away to Dublin by his family with all the money they could spare, is subsequently robbed by bandits and forced into the military to make a living, which he soon deserts.
Posing as a courier for the army, he is discovered by an allied Prussian captain and forced into the Prussian Army.
At the end of the Seven Years War, Barry is promoted to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, a professional gambler. Barry and the Chevalier, another Irishman, develop a friendship and escape the watchful eye of the Prussians.
The two make their living together as a team of cheating gamblers. Barry continues to climb the social ladder, gambling from court to court, until he receives the attentions and financial support of the widowed Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Once married, Barry and Lady Lyndon move to England, where Barry, in his obsession to gain social status and nobility, depletes her fortune and makes a small, but vengeful enemy.
As Barry Lyndon, O’Neal gives a performance based entirely on physicality. O’Neal guides Barry through his often awkward and naive youth to his descent into age, assured, often overconfident self-worth, and eventually his drunken collapse. O’Neal’s facial expressions, demeanor and comedic timing in dialogue make the performance. On screen, it is like actually watching a man age. However, his softness in voice often leaves moments of intensity, comic or not, hanging and unfulfilled.
As a director, Kubrick’s mark is all over this film, and it would be easy for those familiar with Kubrick to identify it as such. Kubrick never shies away from using sound to intensify his films — sweeping, intense strings, harps and drums resound through the movie — breaking only when the drama of the film escalates.
Kubrick capitalizes on the tension built throughout the slow, careful pacing of the film, and brings greater attention to the drama that is the life of Barry Lyndon. It is difficult, if not impossible, to break the hypnotic effect of having all focus drawn solely to the sounds of the action on-screen.
Visually, Kubrick maintains a stillness in his framing that puts emphasis on the living world of art he creates, with its luscious fabrics, ornate pieces of art and gilded decors. Kubrick, in this film, makes it perfectly clear that he is good at what he does, and doesn’t need elaborate stories or distractions to make his films enthralling.
“Barry Lyndon” is a visually beautiful, dryly comedic and often emotionally charged rags to riches life story that is so captivating that the three-hour running time definitely doesn’t feel like Barry Lyndon’s life story.Contact Lauren Schlottman.