Director: Stanley Kubrick
There are many films vying for the title of lost masterpiece. Barry Lyndon, if not that, is certainly the odd one out of the Kubrick oeuvre, passed even by Eyes Wide Shut until this year’s new print and re-release, which we were fortunate enough to see on a big cinema screen.
And if you can get to a screening you should. The description of the cinematography used most frequently is like a Constable painting come to life. And this is true, but one could also think of Joseph Wright of Derby and even Caravaggio in the candlelit interior scenes. Every shot is framed like a painting, and the exterior scenes achieve a naturalism I’ve seen in very few other historical dramas. It’s georgeous throughout, from the early scenes in rural Ireland to the stately home of Lyndon’s final rise (and fall). Kubrick brings the same extra-ordinary visual flair to the costume drama as he does to sci-fi – a clarity that makes one feel that one is watching a documentary even though the head is marvelling at the artifice.
The story is derived from an nineteenth-century novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon and as with Clockwork Orange we are guided through the story by a narrator. Here though our offstage voice is not that of the protagonist, but the Victorian author – by turns wondering, exasperated and sympathetic to Barry’s attempts to better himself. There are intertitles, an interval, and other devices that serve to heighten the episodic nature of the story: though deliberately paced the story is never boring as we follow Barry’s rise from callow youth to soldier to professional con-artist and finally landed gentry. In many reviews Ryan O’Neals passive acting style was criticised, but it seems that now – and I agree – that it shows perfectly how Barry has moments of decision – but having set things in motion is then as swept along by the consequences of his actions as his lovers and colleagues are. Time and time again Barry encounters people who thinks that there is something to gain by giving him a leg up. There’s a great supporting cast including Maria Berenson as his self-absorbed wife; Leonard Rossiter as an English military officer whose wooing of Barry’s childhood sweetheart starts the story off; and Patrick Magee as a chameleon spy-cum-diplomat-cum-conman under whose tutelage Barry moves into high society.
It goes without saying in a Kubrick film that there’s an exquisite classical soundtrack, and that the ending is ambiguous to say the least.
The film is book-ended by two stunning duel scenes – both unbearably tense. So there’s much to enjoy, and Barry Lyndon’s transition from runt of the litter to the front row of the Kubrick canon is pretty well complete.
If you can find a cinema showing it it’ll be well worth your while, otherwise let’s hope BFI release their new digital print on Blu-Ray in due course.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Kubrick fans, Poldark fans, Reggie Perrin fans