Originally Reviewed – 5/4/2012
Ask yourself this question: Are you a member of the Barry Lyndon club?
Along with 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon is considered by many fans as the black sheep in the director’s storied career. When the film was first released in 1975, Kubrick was the toast of artistic Hollywood. With films like the legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange under his belt, Kubrick was known to be an eccentric yet brilliant provocateur. Capable of bringing in the bucks along with rave reviews, Warner Bros gave the director free reign on his next project. With the limitless resources of a major studio, Kubrick took a different approach with his 10th feature film and created a period drama about a rascally Irishman’s rise in social status. Quiet, haunting and beautifully shot, Barry Lyndon may not have the bombast of Kubrick’s other work but it still maintains as an important and stunning work of film art.
Barry Lyndon tracks the life and times of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), a penniless trickster who lies, swindles and worms his way into the highest circles of 18th century aristocracy. Much ado has been made of the stunning cinematography of this movie, so rather than spend word space lauding it, let me just agree. The film looks visually stunning. Using a wide variety of custom made lenses and one of the best uses of natural light in the history of cinema, Kubrick’s film is a textbook example of visual storytelling. Every shot is beautiful, well framed and perfectly realized.
Good thing, too, as you’re going to be spending a chunk of time wandering Europe with Sir Lyndon. Clocking in at three hours, Barry Lyndon may look imposing but is paced perfectly. Fans often deride this movie for being slow, but I found it flowed better than 2001: A Space Odyssey. The pacing is helped by a meaty screenplay. Barry engages in duels, fights in the Seven Years War and battles the pressures of unexpected fortune. He’s a complicated guy who lives an interesting life, and that dramatic drive propels the film better than floating spaceships and the Blue Danube.
And before you start flaming me for the 2001 dig, allow me to say that Barry Lyndon is less than perfect. This is a period piece and has all the pitfalls and problems of the genre. For every beautiful landscape you get era specific dialogue. With every pristine costume you’re handed a dry performance. Ryan O’Neal and his band of English character actors all do fine work in their respective roles, but nothing ever stands out either. There are a few moments of artistic energy but there’s little connection, something that dulls the dramatic experience.
But when a film looks and feels this good, I can forgive the minor quibbles. Barry Lyndon is not only an achievement in classic cinematography, it’s a triumph of art over expectations. Kubrick was never one to be pigeonholed, and when the world demanded another controversial epic, he responded with quiet beauty. Sometimes the best response to the roar of the crowd is a sigh and in the making of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick not only cemented his reputation as a master filmmaker, he added the wrinkle of versatility. An underrated film by one of the best directors of the modern age.
Score – 90%