Barry Lyndon: Stanley Kubrick’s Most Indulgent Film Shows Him at the Height of His Powers
Kubrick made multiple masterpieces, but none showed the reach of his abilities quite as well as Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon at 45
There’s a pattern that reoccurs when it comes to the order in which cinephiles explore the films of Stanley Kubrick. Most people who weren’t able to or alive to see his movies in theaters start with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to blow their minds, or they try Dr. Strangelove (1964) for some dark laughs, they sample The Shining (1980) to consume operatic terrors (and to finally get the “Here’s Johnny!” reference), or they watch A Clockwork Orange (1972) for its transgressive sleaze. And then maybe they move backward to the earlier films or skip ahead to the dorm poster staple Full Metal Jacket (1987) or the psycho-sexual bleak comedy of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). But rarely is Barry Lyndon (1975) anyone’s starting place with Kubrick. It’s rarely even their second or third or fourth Kubrick film. It sits imposingly at the mid-point of his career, a three-hour period film treated like a five-hour drawing-room epic that plays at molasses-like speeds while lacking the consciousness-expanding elements of 2001 or the thrills of The Shining. Aside from some of the juvenilia, Barry Lyndon was the final Kubrick film I saw, and it left me confounded and in desperate need of a nap. But Kubrick’s films almost always benefit from repeat viewings and none quite so much as Barry Lyndon. Multiple visits to its bygone world reveal that it’s the film that most ably shows off the extent of Kubrick’s talents. It’s hard to say if it’s his best film — Who could choose from all the riches of his oeuvre? — but it’s easily the closest he ever got to a perfect film, one in which every element is expertly calibrated.
Barry Lyndon is based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 picaresque novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, about an Irish gentleman in the 18th century whose family has fallen on hard times. He fancies becoming a British noble by whatever means necessary, including half-hearted military service on the continent. After deserting more than once, he takes up work as a professional gambler (but mainly a cheater), before achieving his dreams of wealth and nobility, only to piss it all away. Thackeray’s novel has a comic tone throughout, even in many of the darker sections, but Kubrick imagined it as more of a tragedy, and he removed the title character’s narration in favor of an omniscient third-person narrator. (My desire to nap after first seeing Barry Lyndon might have been because Michael Hordern’s narration is so soothing.)
After having mostly ignored big-name actors in A Clockwork Orange and 2001, Kubrick cast Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry, later to become Barry Lyndon. Five years earlier, O’Neal had rocketed to fame with the smash-hit romance Love Story (1970), and he was hot of the critical and commercial success of Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973). His role in Barry Lyndon is a star performance, one that wouldn’t work without the aura that O’Neal had at the time, and it points toward Jack Nicholson’s work in The Shining (1980), which couldn’t be separated from the actor’s previous work. Unlike Nicholson, O’Neal has never been a particularly good actor, yet he’s often good when working with the right director who understands his limits. Barry is a con man, and not a very good one, so when O’Neal isn’t completely convincing it works in the film’s favor. His seemingly weaker moments create a kind of documentary reality that would have failed with a more talented actor; it wouldn’t have been as obvious why Barry’s schemes were always doomed to fail.
Kubrick would make nothing but great films for the rest of his life, but he never seemed as limitless as when he made Barry Lyndon.
Much has been written about Kubrick’s choice to use experimental lenses designed for NASA that allowed him to film by candlelight, even though traditional incandescent lights were still used extensively. It’s a bit of a gimmick, and Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017) recently proved that a film doesn’t have to be shot by candlelight to look authentic. But Kubrick’s newfound ability to capture a more natural ambiance required fewer lights when he was using them, and there are fewer of the dramatic shadows or overlit scenes that mark a traditional film shoot. The stage lights create a slightly blue shade in scenes where they’re featured, which fits in with more contemporary tastes and prevents the film from looking overly yellow or brown like many period pieces from that era. The movie’s expert cinematography from John Alcott, who shot all of Kubrick’s films from 2001 to The Shining, is endlessly beautiful, but also shockingly modern.
Barry Lyndon is often bandied about in discussions of slow cinema as a forefather of the movement, which uses long takes and minimal dialogue to allow the audience to contemplate more fully what they’re being shown. Yet “slow” is a misnomer for Barry Lyndon; rather, it’s a contemplative film. Quite a lot happens in the film’s three hours, and it manages to tell a small story on an epic scale. If it takes its time, that’s because many social interactions would have been slower in the 18th century, without our modern distractions pushing us toward greater and greater stimulation. The fast, brash demeanors that we’re used to would have seemed bizarre or rude. The ability to be measured and stately is a qualification of nobility in Barry Lyndon, and Kubrick is faithful enough not to try to speed up the pace of life. In order to truly connect with the film, modern viewers have to put their phone out of reach, or in another room, as even the smallest distractions can free one from the movie’s spell. If there’s ever a chance to see Barry Lyndon in a theater, don’t pass it up, for few movies benefit so much from a distraction-free presentation as it does.
As beautiful and detailed as Barry Lyndon is, the element that makes it stand out among Kubrick’s films is its emotional depth, which is absent from many of them. We can feel pangs of sympathy at times for HAL 9000 or Wendy Torrance, but the films always push us away again, and many of Kubrick’s protagonists are just plain psychopaths. We can delight in what they do, but we’re often kept at a distance. It’s easier to have an emotional connection with Barry because he’s an idiot, and therefore an innocent. He’s a cheater and a liar, but he doesn’t know much better, so we can’t hold it against him. If his noblewoman wife (Marisa Berenson) seems empty inside, it’s because living with Barry has slowly eaten away at her. Some of the greatest emotional moments come from their children, particularly a sad moment involving Barry’s only biological son. The aftermath of his devasting fall from a horse manages to be both intensely sad and bleakly comic, a deft move that Kubrick never matched.
The question that arises from Barry Lyndon is what Kubrick’s filmography might have been like had the film been more of a success, either critically or commercially. His next film, The Shining, is a masterpiece, but it’s not at Barry Lyndon’s level, and his final features, while still great, can’t compare. With Barry Lyndon, he achieved a massive film of contradictions, of grandeur and incisiveness. Kubrick would make nothing but great films for the rest of his life, but he never seemed as limitless as when he made Barry Lyndon.