Home Video Hovel: Barry Lyndon, by David Bax
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is the kind of movie people look at from a remove of years and remark, “They don’t make them like that anymore.” In many ways, it is the quintessential big budget period costume drama. The stunning location shooting at actual castles, the sweeping shots packed with extras in detailed, accurate costumes, the stirring classical music from Schubert to Vivaldi to Bach and others; this beautiful piece of work represents a kind of moviemaking scope we rarely see anymore without the aid of CG. But with its misanthropy, its dark sense of humor and its sporadic, visceral violence, it’s a film like no other. They don’t make them like this anymore. They never did.
Barry Lyndon could be correctly be categorized as novelistic. It is, in fact, based on a novel, a picaresque by William Makepeace Thackeray first published as a serial; it has a third person omniscient narrator (Michael Hordern); it takes place over the course of 30-plus years. Yet I fear that such a descriptor is insufficiently cinematic for a film of such sensory depth. Clocking in at over three hours with an intermission, this sprawling tale of the rise and fall of an Irish gentry man named Redmond Barry then, later, Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal), who is both made and unmade by the rules and regulations of high society, is so wholly transportive, so thoroughly conceived, it’s a shock when it ends and you find yourself back in the 21st century.
Barry’s ability to rise to a place among the nobility comes from his apparently natural born aptitude at violence, especially the highly ceremonialized and, therefore, more acceptable kind practiced by the upper crust. He’s good at duels of both the pistol and rapier variety, excels at fisticuffs and is unblinking on the battlefield. Kubrick highlights the dark irony here. Barry literally fights his way to the top by way of codified brutality but, at the end, it’s a messy, unsanctified scrap that seals his undoing.
There’s sympathy to be felt for Barry, to be sure, but Kubrick and O’Neal resist making him a tragic hero. Barry is fickle, opportunistic and almost entirely selfish but with just enough of a sweetness for his family and his homeland to keep him from being a villain. No, Barry is a textbook antihero. Apparently, Thackeray’s novel is considered by many to be the first to feature such a protagonist. It’s fitting that, 130 years later, Kubrick used his story to break the mold again.
It would be criminal to discuss Barry Lyndon and not bring up the cinematography by the late John Alcott (who also worked with Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining). The transfer was done at 4K from the original camera negative and the Blu-ray preserves the intended 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The mix of shots of such stillness that they resemble paintings and roaming shots of the countryside or castle grounds work in concert harmoniously. The indoor scenes, most of which were famously shot with only candlelight, are gorgeous and evocative, even though the consequential use of a wide open aperture necessarily leads to less definition in these moments. There is both a mono and a 5.1 mix available on this Criterion Blu-ray.
Special features include a new featurette about the cinematography; a new featurette on the production design; a new interview with the editor, Tony Lawson; a French television interview from 1976 with Ulla-Britt Söderlund, one of the costume designers; a new interview with film critic Michel Ciment; a new interview with Leon Vitali, who plays Barry’s stepson in the last section of the movie; and a new featurette with an art curator on Kubrick’s classical inspirations.