Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick
DP: John Alcott
Editor: Tony Lawson
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O'Neal, Michael Hordern, Marie Kean, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Godfrey Quigley, Leon Vitali
Distribution: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Length: 3 hrs. 4 min.
Stanley Kubrick's films have been relentlessly referenced, parodied, and paid tribute to in modern American pop culture. It's hard to overstate how easy it is to find references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, or Full Metal Jacket in cartoons, music, video games, or other films. This isn't to say that Kubrick has had a particularly substantial influence over everything that nods at his work, but many of his films have undeniably left their mark enough that you'd probably recognize parts of them regardless of whether you've ever seen one of his films.
This isn't true of Barry Lyndon. Though it is generally remembered by Kubrick fans as one of his greatest films, or at least a very impressive technical achievement, it seems to have gone largely ignored in pop culture.
This is probably because it's a much lower-concept film than the aforementioned. It's also strange in many ways: for instance, it uses the very peculiar device of having an omniscient-but-unreliable narrator. It can be confusing to Barry Lyndon, despite its relatively straightforward plot. This is to say nothing against the film, though.
The film is divided into two acts: "By what Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon," and "Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters which Befell Barry Lyndon." The very first thing we learn in the film is that Redmond Barry, the titular character, lost his father in a duel. Next, we see Redmond and the woman he loved together in a garden. She very outwardly urges him to make advances, but he finds himself too nervous to act. In the background of the shot, there is a statue of a baby. The film introduces Redmond to us by portraying him as a child, and not a particularly aggressive one.
Throughout the first act of the film, Redmond Barry travels all around Europe, earning the trust and respect of various men of noble status. The narrator tells us Redmond is determined to live the life of a true gentleman, and to never live as a peasant. But the relationships he has with these men, and the way he discriminates between them according to their respective countries of origin suggest that there is something more to his interactions with them. The film opens by demonstrating that Redmond is a child without a father, and for the first half of the film he bounces between father figures, men who take him under their wing and, frequently, who share his national heritage.
He earns their respect through acts of aggression, which is a rather striking shift away from what we see of his character at the start of the film. It's been said of Kubrick's films that they feel as though some inhuman force is guiding the characters, and I think this is more or less the case in Barry Lyndon. But the force isn't quite inhuman, and it has a voice: the narrator. The narrator doesn't just describe Redmond's actions to us, but interprets them. He tells us speculations about the emotions behind Redmond's behaviors; and yet, Redmond barely ever seems to emote even a little bit. When he does, he only expresses very subtle affection for one of the men he ingratiates himself to, or extremely petty contempt toward some other character.
And eventually, his efforts toward becoming a "true gentleman" pay off, and the first act comes to an end. Redmond Barry gains the "Style and Title of Barry Lyndon," a new identity. He stops seeking out men to mentor him; now he shows affection only for his sons, and contempt for everyone else. He begins spending frivolously and rarely seeing his wife. He has a son, whose requests he never refuses, but he treats his stepson from his wife's previous marriage poorly. He perseveres as an aggressive child: eventually he even needs the prodding of his mother to be proactive.
It seems as though none of Redmond's mentors helped him grow up. He's still an aimless child; but now he's an aggressive child, shaped by a world that only really serves charlatans, aristocrats, and warmongers.
Eventually, Redmond's lack of impulse control and foresight becomes his undoing. He experiences an irreversible, devastating loss, and finds it impossible even to ingratiate himself to another father figure. In the film's final scenes, he is called upon once again to be aggressive and violent. These qualities had earned him the name Barry Lyndon, even if they were not within the character of Redmond Barry. But by this point in the film, that name has utterly failed to give him anything he wanted. In a surprising turn, he does not act in aggression; he submits, and loses the identity of Barry Lyndon.
Critics frequently describe Barry Lyndon as "painterly". This may be attributable to the fact that Kubrick positioned the actors and held them still for a time before the start of every shot. He and cinematographer John Alcott also went to incredible lengths to attain the look of the period, to the point of using lenses developed for the moon landing in order to be able to film scenes lit only by candlelight. Some sources have claimed that the film uses only natural lighting, which is false, but it is true that conventional lighting was almost exclusively used to mimic the effects of natural lighting. It's the kind of lighting that would have been represented in 18th Century painting.
Thanks to the obsessive pains taken by Kubrick, Alcott, and their art directors, Barry Lyndon feels like a relic of the era it depicts. When the film is described as "painterly," it doesn't just mean that it's beautiful and meticulous, it literally means that it recalls an 18th Century painting. It may be worth mentioning that there is a scene in the film where paintings are discussed as status symbols, pricey artifacts that reflect the owner's wealth. Though there is an element of realism added by the locations and distinctive lighting, the blocking and framing may also suggest that the characters are moving through a world composed of status symbols.
The score consists of a combination of Irish folk music and classical music by Mozart, Handel, Bach, and others. Notably, the Irish folk music is mostly concentrated in the film's first half, before Redmond manages to become a fixture in the nobility, while classical music is largely used for the second half.
Though the film is stately and, to put it lightly, deliberately paced, it's not without humor. The narrator's deadpan delivery of ridiculous information, the obvious artifice of some scenes despite the visually realistic setting, the epilogue, and sometimes even the sheer self-seriousness makes it funny in the weird, distant way Kubrick's films can be. Whether the appeal lies there, in the music, in the story, or in the film's nearly unmatched beauty, Barry Lyndon is one of Kubrick's best films.