WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: From humble beginnings in rural Ireland, ambitious scoundrel Redmond Barry is determined to become a gentleman by fair means or foul. Fortune appears to smile on him when he snags a rich widow before she’s even a widow. However, part of her dowry is a resentful stepson, and Barry is to discover that no amount of gentrification can make you immune from tragedy.
Life in 18th Century Ireland is a tad on the quiet side for Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). Living in no great style with his mother (Marie Kean), he passes his days playing cards with teasing cousin Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton), at least until the British Army arrive and her favours are courted by Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter). Reacting badly to the new suiter, Barry challenges Quin to a duel in which the Captain is shot and apparently killed, forcing Redmond to flee with 20 guineas from which he is soon relieved. Redmond grudgingly joins the Army to fight the Seven Years War; and although he soon escapes and earns some respite in the arms of a German girl, Prussian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger) sees through his pretence of being a man of rank and Barry is sent back to the front.
Once the war’s over, Potzdorf tasks Redmond with spying on suspicious gambler the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), but Redmond turns the tables and becomes the Chevalier’s assistant and enforcer. It’s in this capacity that he meets and seduces Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), lonely wife of bumptious MP Sir Charles (Frank Middlemass). As soon as Sir Charles shuffles off his mortal coil, Barry usurps his place, re-styling himself Barry Lyndon; however, unless he can gain a title Barry is destined to be a flash in the pan, and making an enemy of his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage as a child, Leon Vitali as an adult) doesn’t help his cause. Salvation appears to come in the shape of his own son Brian (David Morley), but fate works in mysterious ways. Meanwhile, years of overspending and overindulgence take their toll on Barry’s physical state as well as Lady Lyndon’s Castle Hackton estate.
Of all Stanley Kubrick’s colour films, Barry Lyndon is probably the least-discussed, the main interest coming from the NASA-derived lenses that allowed Kubrick to film using only candlelight. So let’s start there and say that the film often looks gorgeous, portraying a series of sumptuous tableaux that could be Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress brought to life.
If it’s fanciful to say that the film takes us back to the 18th Century, the cinematography, costumery and other production values* of Barry Lyndon mean that it does the equivalent of what 2001: A Space Odyssey did, in 1968, for the future, presenting as convincing a representation of the past as you’re ever likely to see. Something about Kubrick’s style means that it doesn’t betray when it was made; much of the movie (on Blu-ray) looks as though it was filmed yesterday, and the typically intelligent use of classical music – Handel, Bach et al – to accompany the visuals is absolutely perfect. Sofia Marie Antoinette Coppola, take note.
Whether or not you actually like Barry Lyndon is largely a matter of having the patience (or not) to live at Kubrick’s glacial pace: no matter how pretty they are, three hours of barely-moving pictures through the director’s clinical eyes is surely enough for anyone. The first act particularly takes far too long detailing Redmond’s adventures when twenty minutes or more could have been excised without harm.
I know why it’s as long as it is: Act I builds up the elements of Barry’s character that make him so ill-suited to the life of a gentleman in Act II. Unfortunately, in Ryan O’Neal the film has a central pillar that can’t bear the weight of Barry’s accumulated experience. The Californian is, plain and simple, miscast, wearing expressions that hint at a lack of understanding of how he’s meant to react, and essaying an accent that only occasionally floats towards the Emerald Isle. His inadequacies are magnified by the really good work going on around him, from Kean, Magee, Melvin Murray as the pious and easily-affronted Reverend Runt, Berenson and the always-excellent Rossiter, whose ‘serious’ acting was always overshadowed by his (also excellent) TV comedy characterisations.
Even the kids, Savage and Morley, seem less encumbered by the pressure to act than O’Neal; nevertheless, during the second half, when the drama picks up – and, to be honest, when those around Lyndon become more active in affairs – Ryan raises his game too, and there is real emotion in the scenes surrounding his son and his vengeful, Hamlet-inflected stepson. Unsurprisingly, the latter scenes do go on a bit, but an important point is made about the determination of the patriarchal Establishment to keep power away from upstarts (and women). Plus ça change…
Barry Lyndon ultimately reminded me of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films demand respect for their craftsmanship, yet are simply too lethargic to be considered as successes in narrative terms. Additionally, Kubrick’s film is hampered by a leading actor who looks dashing enough but doesn’t cut the mustard – oh for Albert Finney’s Tom Jones to transport himself into O’Neal’s shoes. However, even if the wearying pace of the movie or the suspect brogue of the star turn you off, it’s worth a watch to glimpse a gallery of beautiful living paintings.
NOTES: Fans of Brideshead Revisited (TV or film adaptations) will recognise Castle Howard standing in for Castle Hackton. I must visit sometime.