director Stanley Kubrick
Though it’s landed on many “Greatest films” lists, including last year’s BBC list of Best 100 American films (through which I’ve been working my way), Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period drama, Barry Lyndon was a film I had never seen. Adapted from a picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, it stars Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson in a story about an Irish “adventurer” who wriggles his way from one event to the next, country to country, from poverty to nobility, while never being much more than a cypher at heart.
Kubrick is sometimes criticized for a coldness and formality to his works, and Barry Lyndon exemplifies that in ways, though starkly different from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or A Clockwork Orange (1971), still readily apparent. At 3 hours in length, the film has a slow and measured pace, and as Barry Lyndon, Ryan O’Neal is almost entirely inscrutably blank, his only real emotion for his one natural child.
The most evocative thing about the film are its sets, framings, and costumes, crafted with painterly detail and often shot at distances that keep the viewer from entering too deeply, held back at room’s length. It’s been referred to as if created as a story “within a gilded cage” and so it’s no accident, this distance and artifice are fully intentional. Did Kubrick ever do anything by accident?
It’s also said that Kubrick fell back on this film when other projects, including his would-be film about Napoleon failed to come together, putting to use all the period research he’d acquired in the planning of the never-made film. Whatever the case, it seems a bit the opposite of a “passion project” rather maybe a “dispassion project”.
Kubrick wrote the script himself, which was apparently unusual for him, and setting the tone and style, departing from the novel’s 1st person perspective, a story of Barry Lyndon told in his own voice and possibly suspect, is instead instilled with a distant omniscience and cold irony, as narrated by Michael Hordern.
I suspect I’ll be musing over Barry Lyndon for some time to come. It’s funny how some films strike you right away and others require time and contemplation to take their place in your mind. My son has decided that Stanley Kubrick is his favorite director, so we watched this together, all three hours. I’m not sure that he knows where to place it yet either.