Criterion Prediction #47: Barry Lyndon, by Alexander Miller
Title: Barry Lyndon
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger
Synopsis: Redmund Barry is a man of limited means in 18th-century Ireland, who, by a series of precipitous events, finds himself at the height of English aristocracy. Starting off as a fugitive following a duel with a British Captain, Redmund enlists in the military, shifts alliances, masquerades as a gambler for the Prussian government which in turn provides a gateway to high society, and eventually marries the very wealthy Lady Lyndon. Barry Lyndon might be a manipulative social climber, advantageous charmer, or cunning rogue, but the series of events that culminate his curious tale are enthralling every step of the way.
Critique: Stanley Kubrick is an iconic director. His name is a recurring staple in our cinematic vernacular. Barry Lyndon is one of Kubrick’s most remarkable efforts; visually this movie is a marvel, matched with an articulate narrative that delivers a softer irony in contrast to social commentary that punctuated much of his work.
Barry Lyndon is a revelatory turn, seeing that such a forceful perfectionist can manage to incorporate an enveloping tapestry of period atmosphere with his trademark visual flourishes. We often forgive Kubrick’s deliberate aesthetic devices due to the consistently impressive look of his movies, but Barry Lyndon is the ne plus ultra of his filmography; the measured and exquisite cinematography emphasize the unimposing grandeur without calling too much attention to its sense of beauty. Kubrick’s visual pedigree can be heavy, but the transportive qualities of Barry Lyndon hypnotize and seduce.
A concise explanation would likely categorize Barry Lyndon as a “period piece”, but while it embraces the scope of this genre, it’s nearly free from the melodramatic contagions or romantic indulgences associated with films of this type. Ryan O’Neal is a prime example of what can benefit as the result of unlikely casting, his impassive gaze a fitting catalyst for Kubrick’s detached purview. O’Neal’s subdued charisma makes this opportunist rogue more enigmatic. After countless viewings, it’s difficult to decipher what’s going on behind that cool stare of his. Kubrick’s inclinations towards dense, cold characterizations (after all, his most-quoted movie moments comes from a robot) is apparent in this film, but Barry Lyndon is a remote departure for the director regarding thematic design. Opposed to being metaphysical narrative, Redmond Barry’s fumbling (or cunning) ascension and the relationships forged (and lost) along the way bear considerable gravitas, contextualizing this fable of moral indifference and advantageousness with a slyly dubious lead. I can say without any hesitation that this is my favorite Kubrick film. Barry Lyndon is a staggering masterpiece from one of cinemas most elusive talents.
Why it Belongs in the Collection? The inclusion of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was a something of a breakthrough with the director’s work. Though comparatively an earlier film, it stands alongside his most iconic titles. An important factor to consider regarding a movie entering the collection is visibility; we see The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and 2001: A Space Odyssey at Best Buy, Target and so on, which boils down to a simple matter of distribution – as much as I’d like to see A Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket get the Criterion treatment, I doubt Warner Bros. is ready to let go of the rights to these profitable movies. However, recent announcements from Criterion such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Boyhood, and Blood Simple lead me to think that anything is possible. For bewildering reasons, Barry Lyndon received mixed critical reactions upon its release; despite the growing admiration for this film, it still feels undervalued. Perhaps it’s the lack of Stargate sequences, axe-wielding maniacs, and machine gun-toting marines? The Guardian and the BFI have recently posted news about Barry Lyndon receiving a nationwide theatrical re-release, and the years of Reddit posts and fan art boosting this film as a potential Criterion release indicate that this is something that needs to happen. Let’s hope it does.