Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) who later becomes Barry Lyndon is a liar, an opportunist, a thief, a coward, a con artist, a deserter and a scoundrel. He’s a vulture circling his prey until the very last moment and then he takes what he doesn’t deserve, reaching far beyond his station, pretending to belong when in reality those around Barry can see right through him. But still Barry doesn’t change his ways despite being caught repeatedly. That’s what makes the character so fascinating from when we first meet him early in life to his eventual death that is never shown on screen. Perhaps it’s for the better – there are very little who would show any sympathy toward Barry in those moments.
There is one redeeming quality Barry possesses – he’s a good father. However, with the negatives far outweighing the positive, the character’s life is far more engaging than if he were a good person. And given the lengthy runtime and an excruciatingly slow pace that writer-director Stanley Kubrick utilizes, Barry Lyndon provides a satisfaction from the slow burn as the rise and fall of Redmond Barry plays out like the symphony that accompanies his life’s journey.
Based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray and broken down into 2 parts, Kubrick’s adaptation encapsulates the full life of Barry as he swindles his way from his lower class to marry rich and proceeds to slowly lose it all over a series of misfortunes that catch up with his devilish ways. By the time Barry Lyndon loses his reputation, a limb and his son, he does so with the same blank expression as he had when he attained his societal status and success. In fact, rarely does any character in Kubrick’s film show any emotion – they all live in a constant state of dread.
Set during the Seven years’ war and during the aftermath, Barry uses each significant moment as a steppingstone, or perhaps he’s at the benefit of being at the right place at the right time. And this plays into Ryan O’Neal’s performance. During part 1, when Barry is caught by captain of the Prussian Army Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger) and is forced to serve in the army as part of his punishment, there comes a moment when Barry has a choice. He can desert another Army furthering his cowardice or save a life. Barry makes the right decision but only for his own benefit down the road.
Barry’s life is a selfish one – being selfless isn’t in his best interest. And not many initially pick up on Barry’s cruel intent. Only when the film shift from part 1 into part 2 and Barry marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), her son Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage as young Bullingdon / Leon Vitali as the adult) exposes Barry’s true intentions. “He doesn’t love my Mother” Bullingdon says expressionless to Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin). To prove that point, the previous scene shows Barry and Lady Lyndon in a carriage as Barry smokes on a pipe, some of the smoke blowing directly into Lady Lyndon’s face. She politely asks him to stop but Barry’s arrogance takes over and he blows smoke directly into his newly wed wife’s face.
Children are far more observant and perceptive than they get credit for. None of the sophisticated, aristocratic, intelligent adults pick up on Barry’s intentions, unless they to share those same deceitful ways but leave it to a child to pick up on it and later be correct in his observation when Barry begins a life of lust and adultery.
Bringing the novel to life visually for Kubrick’s film is cinematographer John Alcott. Every frame is pristine and picturesque, the color palette is gorgeous. The vast landscapes of the on location shoots in England, Ireland and Germany capture the beauty of the area giving us the scope Kubrick puts forth in all of his films. The horizon is never ending while the double shots keep the camera steady and focused on the subject matter. Whereas the interior shots are full of elegance from all of the floor to ceiling paintings, tapestries and furniture that makes up a room that never ends. All that beauty aside, the best shots come by way of candlelight being the only light source when Alcott usus close up shots and the background is barely visible but full of people.
From a technical standpoint, Barry Lyndon showcases a master at work. Costume designs from Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund are breathtaking and intricate and the sets transport us into a different world.
Out of all of Kubrick’s skill and mastery as a director, my favorite aspect of his films that Barry Lyndon also incorporates is the score. Across several of his films, Kubrick looks to the public domain for symphonies to marry the characters to their journey. From Vivaldi to Bach and Handle and Schubert, these classic works have become a centerpiece, adding to the authenticity of the time this story takes place.
Barry Lyndon is a work of art, a Shakespearean tragedy of a likable character with disgusting societal fantasies. Coming in at 185 minutes, the films pace makes the runtime seem double and will be the main reason some may not attempt a viewing. However getting all the way to the end, the finale moment doesn’t offer up any satisfaction or cathartic emotional sympathy but the journey of Redmond Barry Lyndon still deserves to be seen.
Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Cinematography: John Alcott
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Gay Hamilton, Leon Vitali, Murray Melvin
Edited By: Tony Lawson
Release Date: December 18, 1975
Running Time: 3 Hours 5 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Based On: The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray