Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray.
Starring: Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Patrick Magee (Chevalier de Balibari), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Marie Kean (Barry's Mother), Diana Körner (Lischen), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), André Morell (Lord Gustavus Adolphus Wendover), Arthur O'Sullivan (Captain Feeny, the Highwayman), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), Philip Stone (Graham), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Michael Hordern (Narrator).
Stanley Kubrick has a reputation of cold detachment in his films – and while that is somewhat overstated in some cases, it is the perfect description for Barry Lyndon. Despite the fact that the film was nominated for seven Oscars – including three for Kubrick for Picture, Director and Screenplay, and winning four others – for Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design and Score Adaptation – the film was viewed by many in 1975 as a disappointment – it certainly has never connected with audiences, who find the film long and boring. But over the years, the film has grown in stature, as critics at least have caught up to what Kubrick was doing in the film. This is a cold film – and it tells, in detail – the story of an inconsequential life of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil), who starts a poor Irish farmer, rises to the heights of British society, and loses it all again. Barry is a rather passive character, who in many ways stumbles through the events of his own life. Kubrick adapted the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote his book as a satire, told in the first person to try and gain some sympathy for his lead character. Whatever Thackery was satirizing doesn’t come across in Kubrick’s film – and he replaces the first person narrator with a bemused, omnipotent narrator, who often tells us what is going to happen much later in the movie. The first half of the movie takes place mainly during the Seven Years War – but the movie makes no effort to explain what that war was fought for. The narrator tells us that someone more versed in history would have to explain it – because it doesn’t really matter to this story. Some countries are fighting with other countries, and Barry is caught up in it – first as a British soldier, but then he deserts, and is caught and forced into the Prussian Army – which was far worse, far more cruel and brutal than what Barry was running away from. Although the narrator – and Kubrick – never state it outright, perhaps what Barry went through in the war explains the man he would become. While some see Barry’s fall as a result of society’s moral failings – I’ve always seen it as a more personal failing on the part of Barry himself.
When the film opens, Redmond Barry is a fool in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton). She decides to marry a wealthy British officer, and so Barry challenges the man to a dual – and wins – but then has to leave anyway to avoid being hanged. On the road, he is robbed of all he has, so he has little choice but to join the British army. He watches as his friend and mentor is killed – so when an opportunity comes up to flee (by impersonating an officer) – he seizes it, only to be caught and forced into the Prussian service – where, although he impresses his superiors, they also note his cruelty and lack of character – which Barry blames on the element he has fallen into (to Barry everything is someone else’s fault). Later, he will again seize on an opportunity to run away – by joining forces with a gambling fraud of a Chevalier – and he lives the life of a gambler. While living this life, he meets Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) – and her much older, wheelchair bound husband – and sets his sights on her. She falls in love with him, and when her husband dies, marries Barry – who now has the money he has always wanted. But he still has no title – no security – and it is his quest to get this that ultimately leads to his downfall.
Ryan O’Neil has never been a great actor – even at the height of his fame, right before Barry Lyndon, he was more well-known for his generic, non-threatening good looks and easy charm than his acting ability. I wouldn’t call his performance in Barry Lyndon great either – but it is perfect for Kubrick’s purposes. Lyndon is a passive character – in many ways, he remains a blank slate from beginning of the film to the end. There are really only two scenes where he shows any real emotion – when his son dies, and when he attacks his step-son – other than that he remains almost perfectly calm at all moments, betraying little to no emotion. The same can be said for Berenson as Lady Lyndon – she was a model, and Kubrick seems to have cast her for her looks more than anything else. These characters almost seem like observers of their own lives than active participants. Barry does nothing on his own initiative – he is forced into almost everything he does, by the army, by his mother, by his stepson, etc. He becomes cold and cruel – and everyone in the film is willing to exploit him for his wife’s money. Its how the game is played, and as long as Barry conducts himself as a proper gentleman, they are willing to pretend he is one of them.
The film is a master class in filmmaking. Everything in the film is precise and beautifully executed – it is in fact one of the most beautiful films ever made. In particular, the cinematography by John Alcott is one of the best achievements the medium has ever seen. The exteriors are bright and beautiful – with Kubrick’s typical, sweeping shots. The interiors are even better – using only natural light, and the light provided by the candles, the interiors are dark, yet opulent. The film, like his two previous films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, makes good use of classical music, adapted for the movie itself – which heighten the movie, without underlining everything. The film moves at a deliberate pace – even a dual in the second half of the film stretches on for minutes on end, which drains it of its energy – which stands in stark contrast to the dual near the beginning of the film, which is over and done with quickly.
The film is not as exciting as many of Kubrick’s films – but that is by design. Roger Ebert compared the film to 2001 – saying that “both films about organisms striving to endure and prevail – and never mind the reasons. The earlier film was about the human race itself; this one is about a depraved minor example of it”. That is true in many ways. Barry is a man, who like all Kubrick protagonists (save for Spartacus) is not driven by anything greater than himself – not by his beliefs or ideals or emotions. He is a selfish, cruel character who gets what he wants because he is able to be whatever he needs to be at any moment – and then completely abandon that act when it no longer suits his purposes. Barry sees himself as a victim – I think he does anyway, it’s hard to know precisely what Barry is thinking at any point in the film – but his rise and fall is all because of his own actions. He cannot see that – but Kubrick does.
I know that many people will see Barry Lyndon as long and slow and one of those movies where “nothing happens”. Let them say that if they wish. There is a lot going on in Barry Lyndon – it is a clear, cold eyed view from Stanley Kubrick of a man that had he been real, history would have long forgotten. The epilogue of the movie perhaps sums up the movie better than anything I could say “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now”. That line provides more insight into the human condition – and into Barry Lyndon himself – than the character could ever hope to have.