Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger
Released on 29th July 2016
If ever a film cried out to be seen on the big screen, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s re-released in selected cinemas today in a newly restored print so, if you didn’t catch it when it first came out in 1975, now’s your chance. And if you did, treat yourself to a second viewing.
The small screen isn’t an option for a film that lets its visuals do the talking, from its epic battle scenes to interiors where the focus is on lofty rooms which the occupants to the size of little more than ants.
Kubrick’s tenth film is sandwiched between A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) and, like them, is based on a novel, this time from William Makepeace Thackeray, a picaresque tale, one of rise and fall. It follows the adventures of country lad Redmond Barry, later to become Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal), who leaves his village after fighting a duel and killing his rival in love. Robbed of his possessions, he joins the British army, steals an officer’s identity but is rumbled by a Prussian officer, so joins their army instead. The war over, he works for the Prussian government, informing on the Chevalier de Barbari (Patrick Magee) and joining him to travel around Europe running gambling parties for the rich. It’s there he meets Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), marries her after her husband dies and fathers a son. But it’s never an easy relationship.
And those visuals are truly lip-smacking. Some are lit only by candlelight – and Wolf Hall thought it was so ground breaking! – so cinematographer John Alcott used super-fast lenses to capture their soft glowing light. In line with its 18th century setting, many scenes look like Gainsborough or Hogarth paintings. There’s Marisa Berenson’s extravagant and over-large hats and panoramic wig to go with them. Her baby son sports similar headgear. Or, once Barry has married her and become used to a life of opulence and leisure, he develops a taste for physical pleasure with as many women as possible at one time. Those are just a couple of examples, along with the battle scenes, but the camerawork isn’t all about size. Look more closely – and the big screen allows for that – and you’ll see that the scenes have been researched down to the minutest detail. Which is exactly what you’d expect from Kubrick.
Anybody who sees Barry Lyndon will have their favourite scene, and probably more than one. There are plenty of what are essentially set pieces, yet they still come together to make an extraordinarily satisfying whole. For me, it’s the duel between Lyndon and his stepson, the young Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). Duels top and tail the film and are a regular motif throughout, with Barry usually on the winning side. This one is more prolonged, deliberately paced and makes brilliant use of the cold, bloodless words that go with the duelling convention. You’d never think they were talking about killing somebody. It’s spellbinding, especially as it doesn’t go according to plan, and you can’t predict what each man is going to do. By all accounts, it took 41 days to edit this scene. Again, no surprise. This is Kubrick.
Yet, for all its spectacle and detail, there’s a cool detachment about the film’s tone, and the big screen accentuates this. That coolness translates into the characters themselves, Ryan O’Neal especially. He probably wouldn’t have been anybody’s first choice to play the lead, with the likes of Love Story (1970) and Paper Moon (1973) behind him, yet his bland, boyish looks suit the remarkably passive central character. I can’t really call him a hero because he doesn’t behave like one – Thackeray called his original “a book without a hero” – and he drifts through life, letting things happen to him rather than the other way around. Yet he’s also a survivor and you have to grudgingly admire his opportunism and survival instinct. Marisa Berenson, as well as looking fabulous in her costumes, is cool to the point of icy – until tragedy strikes and then we see something of what lies beneath.
Epic in scale and setting, the film is also epic in length: it runs for over three hours and comes complete with that lovely old fashioned rarity, an intermission. Not that you need more than a few minutes, because you’re itching to see what comes next. For Kubrick fans this will easily stand a repeat viewing – or more. And for the generation coming to the film for the first time, a second visit should be mandatory to make sure they get everything out of it.
This is Martin Scorsese’s favourite Kubrick film and recommendations don’t come much higher. Who am I to argue?
Barry Lyndon is in selected cinemas around the country and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 28 July.