Barry Lyndon Review

Posted: March 19, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson Barry_Lyndon_A

Barry Lyndon is set in the 18th century and follows Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), a young man forced to leave his native of Ireland after an altercation with a British officer. After working his way through multiple armies, Barry eventually makes his way to England and cons his way up the aristocracy, eventually taking on the name Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon is not one of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous films and there are a few reasons why. It’s a longer movie, and it also has a deliberately slow pace. The fact that it’s a costume drama also loans to the movie’s “boring” stigma. However I think the main reason the film is so divisive is Lyndon himself. Barry can be a pretty unlikable bastard, and not in the same way as a Jake La Motta or a Daniel Plainview. Vicious as those guys may be, they have a real passion that underlines their actions and a core skill that makes them feel worthy. Lyndon doesn’t have those things. He’s a cold and withdrawn man who is all too often revealed to be a pathetic loser. This is actually a big part of why the film is so fascinating. Kubrick is giving the lavish period treatment usually reserved for the historically significant and great men and women to someone who is actually pretty insignificant; someone who conned some success but who ultimately failed. In doing so, Kubrick is suggesting that all people are equal in the end.

That message may seem positive, but the film has a much more cynical nature. Essentially, Kubrick is suggesting not just that all life is equal, but more specifically, equally worthless. Barry himself is frequently shown to be weak and powerless within the plot, and the cinematography enforces this as well. There is a recurring shot which starts as a medium on Barry, but zooms out to reveal vast landscapes, great structures, or armies of soldiers in identical uniforms. In all cases, the underlying message is how tiny and insignificant Barry is compared to the world he inhabits. This also elaborates why his character be so cold and distant. This isn’t someone we’re necessarily supposed to like, but we are meant to understand his place in the world. In that sense, Ryan O’Neal’s casting is perfect. There’s a cold insincerity to his performance (particularly the second half) and a certain dopiness to his character in the beginning. It isn’t a great performance, but it is great casting.

And yet, for all the time I’ve spent criticizing Barry Lyndon (the man, not the film) there are moments of humanity sprinkled throughout the film. Barry has clear affection for Captain Grogan and fellow Irishman Chevalier du Balibari, two men who take on certain mentor roles to Barry. There is a certain gay subtext to these relationships (further emphasized by another instance of homosexuality in the film and Barry’s unfulfilling relationships with women) as well as a father-son dynamic. Barry’s father had died when he was thus a boy after all. Furthermore, Barry clearly loved his son and the narrator himself comments that for all Barry’s faults, no one could see he was a bad father. It is this relationship that leads to what is easily Barry’s most tender moment.

I bring all this up to emphasize how complicated and multi-facetted a character Barry really is. At once successful and pathetic, dumb and calculating, ruthless and loving. Furthermore, it is not always clear when Barry will act one way or another. One of the film’s most pivotal moments is where he shows mercy to someone who had previously only been an enemy in the film’s climax. There is a similar moment in the first act when Barry goes out of his way to save a life even though that person has only caused him misery. Were these altruistic acts, or did Barry have some other motif? Who could say? I doubt Barry himself knew for sure. The point is there is a lot more to Barry than the surface may suggest, and the fact that Kubrick contextualizes this in a film which ultimately argues how meaningless all of these lives are is darkly comic and fascinating.

All of these insights of character and theme are things which I did not get out of my first viewing of Barry Lyndon. What has always been apparent to me however is the sheer technical brilliance on display. Even beyond the thematic uses of cinematography, this is simply a gorgeous movie which makes great use of natural lighting and captures some beautiful exteriors. The film also has immaculate production design and the decision to use light sources like candles and windows for the interior scenes gives the picture an added richness. Kubrick’s love of classical music is also used to great effect. I particularly like how the tone of the music never conforms to what the obvious use would be. Battle scenes for example will be set to pretty light music. Kubrick is often praised for his abilities as a technical filmmaker, but Barry Lyndon is exceptional even for him. This is right up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of technical filmmaking.

Barry Lyndon is not the easiest Kubrick film to love. It lacks the hilarity of Dr. Strangelove, the sense of wonder of 2001, the bold energy of A Clockwork Orange, the unforgettable set-pieces of The Shining, the visceral thrill of Full Metal Jacket, or the haunting eroticism of Eyes Wide Shut. In that sense, the film is a lot less accessible, but this is every bit as brilliant as those aforementioned works. This is an absorbing and masterfully crafted work which makes some fascinating points about the human condition. In short, it’s another masterpiece from Kubrick, on-par with the great director’s best while still being something entirely unique.


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