#483: Barry Lyndon
Every frame a painting — with all the motion to match.
Initial release: 1975
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Perhaps Hollywood’s most preeminent auteur filmmaker in the immediate post-Hays Code period, Stanley Kubrick stands tall with a number of medium- and genre-defining works stretching across four decades (five if you count his distant final film, Eyes Wide Shut, released a full 12 years after 1987's Full Metal Jacket.) Between those aforementioned films as well as the psychological horror of The Shining, the Cold War absurdism of Dr. Strangelove, and of course the sci-fi realism of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had developed a much-deserved reputation for an extreme perfectionism that nevertheless produced impressive results. The same is true for one of Kubrick’s lesser known films: Barry Lyndon, a slow-burn period drama that, perhaps due to its very nature, has seemingly got lost in the shuffle of other films of the period such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, and The Godfather Part II — all in spite of winning four Oscars.
Nevertheless, Barry Lyndon is a perfect example of what happens when you put Stanley Kubrick in the director’s seat, for good or ill. At a runtime of three hours and change, the film is the slowest of slow burns, feeling more like a series of vignettes or stations. We begin with a young man, Redmond Barry of Ireland, whose jealous temper over a lover and the wealthy British officer to whom she is to be wed gets him shipped off to Dublin. Robbed before arriving in Dublin, he falls into one experience after another, eventually becoming learned in the ways of a rogue, a schemer and a cheat, ultimately seducing, then marrying, the wife of Lord Lyndon (whom Barry wound up dispatching with a quick witticism, which so angers the sickly lord that he keels over on the spot.) However, life among the nobility isn’t so pleasant for Barry, who struggles to get a title (which would secure his position should anything happen to his wife) all the while his step-son schemes against him — and his lavish spending isn’t helping matters either.
If this film were in anyone else’s hands, I don’t think it would have been as successful. Initially built on research for an ill-fated Napoleon biopic that Kubrick had wanted to do, Barry Lyndon represented an opportunity to show off the high and low culture of 18th century Europe, and it certainly does do that. But Kubrick’s reputation for making every frame a painting would have been earned on the strength of this film alone, Kubrick employing a go-for-Baroque compositional style that deliberately references classical paintings of the period — to the point that many scenes are quite static, with little action happening on screen. At times the film even feels like the image has stopped, a big one being Barry leaning over a balcony contemplatively, not moving, and slowly, the image zooms out to reveal the rushing water below him.
As is usually the case with Kubrick, he uses this film as an opportunity to show off a new filmmaking trick, in this case using three lenses from optical lens manufacturer Zeiss (originally developed for use by NASA for the Apollo moon landings) to capture scenes by candlelight, a feat previously thought extremely difficult to outright impossible. In addition to that, he tries to use as much natural lighting as possible, and when he can’t do that he uses electric lighting in such a way as to make it look natural anyway. Given the film’s status as a sort of living painting, lighting is all-important, and Kubrick has nailed it perfectly.
Barry Lyndon is not for everyone. While it’s a tour-de-force of technical innovation, a slow-moving costume drama about an 18th-century Irish fuckboy is probably not going to appeal to a broad audience. While quite a lot does happen in the course of the film, the long takes and slow composition give the film the feeling of being static. In the broader canon of Kubrick’s filmography I would say this one is more technically impressive than anything else, in spite of Kubrick’s wit and some stellar acting from the cast. It’s at best a stepping stone to his next film, The Shining, at worst it’s a vanity project that shows off Kubrick’s skills as a film-maker but isn’t really for anyone besides film nerds — like Kubrick.