During my high school years I worked at what was, at the time, the nicest movie theatre in Denver, The Century 21. In 1975 I remember a great deal of consternation among the management when they found out we were getting the new Stanley Kubrick movie. It ran over three hours plus a 15 minute intermission. We usually showed movies four or five times a day, but Barry Lyndon would only allow two showings a day. This made it a money loser for the theatre. In addition, reviews were luke-warm and crowds were slim. We ushers had a lot of time on our hands. When I wasn’t hitting on the popcorn girls, or sweeping the lobby I spent hour upon hour staring at the screen absorbing what I now believe is Kubrick’s greatest movie. I should mention that I consider Kubrick the greatest modern director, and a man with very few peers in the history of cinema. He approached his movies with such fearless individuality and ferocious technique that only names like Hitchcock, Welles and Malick can be mentioned as equals. Barry Lyndon is his ultimate expression of visual storytelling. Never did Kubrick invest more care in the realization of his theme. Even A Clockwork Orange feels restrained in its execution compared to Barry Lyndon’s extraordinary success.
Based on a novel by Victorian satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon tells the story of Redmond Barry, a young Irish man of very modest background whose stated goal of rising in society seems impossible for someone of such little ambition and questionable moral fiber. However, young Redmond moves throughout his early life with no direction, floating like a leaf on a stream in a society filled with uncertainty, danger and opportunity. In the first two hours of the film he experiences love, lust, betrayal, duels, highwaymen, The Seven Years' War, desertion, the lowest lows and, finally, a taste of the good life as he becomes a gentleman gambler skirting the edges of European high society. It is at the gambling table that he comes in contact with Lady Lyndon, a fabulously wealthy woman who is fantastically beautiful and married to a miserable old goat who is ready to die and pave the way for Redmond Barry to become Barry Lyndon. The last third of the movie shows Barry’s rise and fall in English society. His life becomes a cruel, inexorable march toward weakness, despair and loss. Throughout, Barry’s own lack of morality is mirrored by the larger society he inhabits. Everyone he encounters seems somewhat malevelont, and events swirl in the maelstrom of history with little predictability or reward. In this way, Kubrick brilliantly puts his finger on the modern condition. The more refined the society, the thinner the veil between chaos and order.
Kubrick had complete, auteur-like control over the execution of this film, investing literally years and millions of dollars in the lighting, lenses, locations and music. The result is what has to be THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FILM EVER MADE. Seriously, I just can’t think of another movie that is more visually rewarding than Barry Lyndon. Each and every scene is a breathtaking set-piece, more like an old-master painting than a movie. I found myself going back to scenes to convince myself that it was a real scene, but there is no trickery in this movie. When a scene is lit by candlelight, it is actually filmed in candlelight. When the French and British armies approach each other, firing and falling by the hundred, it is actually hordes of meticulously dressed extras walking through a smoke-filled, dawn-lit battlefield. Every detail is filled with the most extraordinary level of detailed directorial obsession that it is truly possible to lose yourself in this film. It feels like being in a time machine and walking around in the past. Kubrick used every iota of technical and creative ability he had to bring this vision to life and he succeeds beyond his wildest expectations. The casting is impeccable with Ryan O’Neil showing why Farrah Fawcett chose him over every other man in the world, and Marisa Berenson providing the most restrained portrayal of icy beauty in the history of the movies. Every single second of Barry Lyndon is impossibly gorgeous, rewarding your faith in the artistic vision of director Stanley Kubrick and the art of film in general. It is long and slow and lovely and ugly and hopeful and scary and memorable and over too fast…just like life.
- Paul Epstein