Review: Barry Lyndon
4 out of 5 stars
Barry Lyndon is a work of art. Meaning it is like a painting put onto film. It is as if director Stanley Kubrick transported us into the world of the paintings on the walls of a fine art gallery. Released in 1975, between A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Barry Lyndon is perhaps the most overlooked of Kubrick's later films.
Like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket, Barry Lyndon is a disjointed story. Michael Hordern's narration, while sometimes stating the obvious, holds the movie together and eases the transition between sequences. The movie is split into two parts, which can quickly be summed up as Barry's rise in the first half and fall in the second.
The first half is Redmond Barry's rags-to-riches story. Barry is a sympathetic character. He is young and naive. He is in love with his cousin, but too shy to touch her. He is simultaneously awkward and stubborn as he picks a fight with his cousin's suitor, and later duels him. After the duel, Barry has to leave home, and he gets robbed at gun point on his way to town. He eventually joins the army, but later deserts, only to be conscripted into another army. He falls in with a wealthy gentleman, and begins his ascent into the life of an aristocrat.
The second half documents Barry's fall. He marries the beautiful and (more importantly) wealthy Lady Honoria Lyndon, and changes his name to Barry Lyndon. In his quest for acceptance among the aristocracy he squanders his wife's wealth and step-son's inheritance, alienating his family. As Barry cheats on his beautiful and generous wife, the character we sympathized with in the first half gradually forces us to view him with cold detachment, which is what I think Kubrick was expecting the audience to do through the cinematography he used.
One camera technique Kubrick employes throughout is to center close-up on a character, and then zoom out, letting our eyes take in the full setting. The characters may take the beautiful scenery for granted, but Kubrick makes sure the audience doesn't. While this worked in some scenes, I thought it was overused, and created a barrier between the audience and the characters at times. The characters are like the bloodless portraits adorning an art gallery.
The duels and battle scenes, however, find the perfect tone. The long takes, rare in today's films, lend a gritty reality to the violence on the screen. A filmmaker today might show these scenes in a series of shaky takes lasting less than two seconds, alternating between quick-fire close-ups, attempting to get our blood flowing through fast-pace editing.
Barry Lyndon may be a bit too slow-paced for the MTV2 generation, but it is a pleasure for anyone who appreciates artistic film-making. Let anyone who thinks Kubrick's films are tedious gorge themselves on Transformers, while more discerning cinephiles can now enjoy Barry Lyndon on Blu-ray.