Barry Lyndon (1975)

Rates: * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Selection for the classic film club.

Cast, crew, etc.

Redmond Barry, AKA Barry Lyndon, is an impoverished Irish vagabond with a handsome face and few other prospects. His love for his cousin, whose hand has been promised to a wealthy officer, sets in motion a chain of events that will take him to war and embroil him in espionage, an episodic set of adventures rambling across Europe.

Later, he will marry a beautiful widower and find himself at the head of an old money fortune. But can he handle his newfound success? Or is it that someone can never outrun their background? Perhaps none of it, means anything.

Stanley’s Kubrick’s lush period epic stands out in his filmography as a bit of a mystery. The director, who took years between films, and whose every project was an event, has made something pretty straightforward here. While it has a distinctive look, it is in many respects just another earnest adaptation of a notable British novel, written in this case by William Makepeace Thackeray.

It is said that Kubrick had long wanted to make a Napoleon biopic, and when this ambition was frustrated (‘Waterloo’ was a big budget flop in 1970, apparently spooking the studios) he turned his attention to another story set in the same period. In ‘Barry Lyndon’ the war is just the backdrop; it allows the main character an opportunity to distinguish himself, and is promptly forgotten once he finds success. What is left, after this, are the human relationships, which is not usually Kubrick’s strong suit.

After an entertaining first half, as close as Kubrick has come to a romp, the second half becomes a fairly laborious domestic drama, as Lyndon neglects his wife and clashes with her son from a previous marriage. There is bit of sport at the expense of the priveleged classes, but I did not find any emotional connection with the character’s ups and downs. Which may be the point; in an airless life of dull leisure, the death of emotion may be an unsurprising consequence. But it takes a long, slow time to get there.

Ryan O’Neal, solid in the lead, let’s his newfoound success go straight to his head, and immediately starts behaving like a cad. Shortly after this, he then starts behaving like the rather nice but dense lad he had seemed earlier; neither of these changes is explained, and Kubrick does not really seem interested in probing this character’s psychology. He even just disappears from the movie at the end, his departure told via one line of tossed off voice over, which makes you wonder if the point was, there was no point. All of this feels undernourished.

What the film does have, is its look. Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott, bought three super fast lenses left over from NASA’s Apollo program and built their own camera around them; a technological innovation that allowed them to shoot the interior scenes entirely by candlelight. These ravishing, entirely unique, images look sensational; orange with natural warmth, and shadows that dance in the background. The exterior shots are almost as good, and are aided by shooting the entire film on location in Ireland, England, and Germany. Oscar winning production design and costumes round out one of the most sumptuous looking films ever made.

It is such a treat to look at, it makes up for many of the film’s other shortcomings.

A number of Kubrick’s classic films – ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘The Shining’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’ – have the same theme; that forcing people into unnatural environments will eventually cause them to lose their humanity. You could argue the same theme is present here; that the upper class are being warped by their pampered existance. But this movie does not land with the same impact as some of Kubrick’s others; for all of the innovation behind the scenes, the ideas are not as original and this is the one film of his I find… plodding.

A very pretty, but slightly empty, experience.

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