Barry Lyndon

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Upon its release in 1975, Barry Lyndon faired poorly and the box office and received generally lukewarm reviews from critics who, while praising it for its beauty, ambition and scope, labelled it as cold, indulgent and lacking narrative drive. Since then it has risen in stature and is now regarded by many as one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest, most complex (both aesthetically and thematically) films.

Loosely based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s debut novel, the plot traces the life of Redmond Barry, a rouge Irishman who, forced to leave his home after a conflict with an English soldier, climbs the ladder of wealth and status in 18th century society by joining the British army, becoming a police spy and marrying a wealthy widow-only to find a mirror image and a rival in his resentful stepson.

A recurring theme in the films of Stanley Kubrick is dehumanization: take, for example, the government’s attempt to transform the remorseless criminal Alex DeLarge into a submissive, law abiding citizen in “A Clockwork Orange” or the process of military training in “Full Metal Jacket”, which attempted to mould its young cadets into mindless, cold-blooded, killers. In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s focus is on the dehumanising nature of society during the Victorian period, a time when society placed great pressure on individuals to suppress their natural feelings and desires in order to be deemed respectable.

The aesthetic tidiness reflects the rigidness and superficiality of this society. Every shot is very carefully designed and organised, and, uncharacteristically, the camera mostly remains stationary, its movements mainly limited to a few hypnotic zoom-ins and zoom-outs. The characters are often locked in the centre of a highly detailed composition, like figures in a Victorian oil painting-they appear trapped; trapped by the constraints placed upon them by the expectations of society; trapped within the frames of the film itself; trapped, as the film’s epilogue reminds us, within a period of time. As a result of this, the film often feels cold and detached-this effectively mirrors the feelings of the characters.

The cinematography and production design are fantastic; each set, costume and shot was designed with meticulous detail. It is also perfectly, though leisurely, paced (It is over three hours long, yet not one minute seems uninteresting or superfluous).

As the film’s title character, Ryan O’Neal delivers an excellent performance, projecting an external formality and properness but always appearing to have an underlining sadness and insecurity.

But Barry Lyndon is not only about the lives of individuals during the 18th century; it is also about the deceptive nature of filmmaking. Just as Thackeray’s novel used unreliable first person narration to bring to the audience’s attention the ability of literature to manipulate meaning and conceal truth, Kubrick’s film highlights the ability of the medium of film to do the same. This is accomplished through the unreliable omniscient voice over narration (which regularly provides unsophisticated explanations for the characters’ behaviour- clearly contrasting with the actions being displayed) and by bringing Barry Lyndon’s archetypal rise-and-fall structure to the forefront (through the title cards at the beginning and middle of the film).

In other words, Barry Lyndon suggests that the need for films to present reality in a coherent, orderly manner results in a disconnect from the (as Kubrick’s films often present it) random and chaotic nature of reality.

At once visually astounding, thought-provoking and bleak, Barry Lyndon is possibly the greatest, most audacious cinematic recreation of a period in history, as well as the most overlooked film of Stanley Kubrick’s career.





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