Barry Lyndon – Review

There are few directors whose work is as respected and as prolific as Stanley Kubrick. The great man worked in numerous genres, explored a range of narrative and worked with an endless list of talented actors.

To celebrate the work of the great director the British Film Institute is re-releasing one of Kubrick’s most accomplished films. Barry Lyndon is a rise and fall tale that takes the audience from a rustic Irish landscape to the heights of the British Aristocracy. Featuring some of Kubrick’s most ambitious cinematography the director used a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray as well as prominent 18th century art to create his period epic

Following the rise and fall of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), a simple Irish boy who falls in love with his older cousin Nora. When she shuns him for an advantageous marriage he duels the suitor and wins. He soon after flees his home and joins the army, going to war and eventually deserting. He is captured by a rival army and forced to re-enlist, gaining favour and working as a spy. Later Barry profits as a prolific gambler with his partner the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee). He then meets the young and beautiful Countess of Lyndon, (Marisa Berenson), who will change the course of his life. His relentless pursuit of status leads to the now Redmond Barry Lyndon’s inevitable downfall.

The film is based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair. The visuals were inspired by a scrap book of 18th Century art as well as artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and William Hogarth. Kubrick aimed to recreate the richness of these painting in the film and have an authentic window into the past. The result is one of Kubrick’s most accomplished works, stylistically speaking, and still by today’s standards the detail feels truly unmatched.

The story is told in voice over, though not a totally reliable one. This is the evolution of a man and the full life he leads in detail. We follow Barry as he journeys from Ireland across Europe and back to England. His rise in society is the driving force of the film and the visuals demonstrate this climb.

The first half of the film is very much focused on landscapes and open spaces. Barry’s spell with two army’s allows war sequences to be explored mirroring famous art canvases. This style reflects the rustic and simple life that Barry leads as a soldier. Once Barry leaves this life and becomes a gambler, the film concentrates on scenes in stately mansions, lit by candles and party sequences. This mirrors his ascension from humble beginnings to man of the world. Finally as Barry marries and enters Nobel life the film presents us with its most eloquent visuals from grand stately homes, lush costumes and fine art filled galleries. Barry has reach the height of society and the visual relish showing the audience his lifestyle.

Kubrick is famous for his striking visuals and Barry Lyndon is no exception. Kubrick used only natural lighting in the film which was innovative for its time. This again was inspired by art, giving the film a unique and authentic look. He moved away from the artificially lit period pieces of his time making Lyndon unique.

On its release the film received mixed reviews and was only a moderate success. Much of this could be down to the films slow pace and long running time. Made at a time when an interval was still used, the film runs at just over three hours and may turn away some audiences. With its beauty and detail, however, Kubrick allows the camera to linger on landscapes, settings and interior detail. This in no way progresses the narrative but is as much the director’s vision of the characters and story.

Leading man O’Neal may still be best known for schmaltz fest Love Story but here he gives an impressive and understated performance as Barry. Able to portray the young naïve boy we meet in the beginning right up to the cold, calculating and ruthless socialite he turns into. His downfall is epic and even though its feels inevitable, it still shocks an audience following his story.

A Kubrick epic as only the man could deliver. Beautiful cinematography and a rise and fall of epic proportions.




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