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Barry Lyndon (1975)

January 25th, 2007 · No Comments

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In the mid-18th century, as England is engaged against France and its allies in the Seven Years’ War, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is introduced as a teen living in the Irish countryside. His father was a lawman killed in a duel, and the boy lives under the patronage of his uncle.

He becomes enamored with his cousin (Gay Hamilton), who, according to our folksy Narrator (Michael Hordern) is “the object of Barry’s affection and all his early troubles.” She’s engaged to marry a British captain, but Barry jeopardizes the family’s marriage dower by challenging the soldier to a duel. The captain is shot down, and Barry is advised to head to Dublin and lay low.

Quickly separated of his horse and twenty guineas by highwaymen, Barry joins the English army. He fights against the French, but aspires to a title and style that a soldier’s life cannot afford. Impersonating a courier, he abandons his regiment, but runs into Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), a Prussian commander who sees through the deserter’s lame ruses.

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Barry is forced into the Prussian military, which is even worse than the British. He distinguishes himself in battle by saving Potzdorf’s life, and accompanies him to Berlin after the war. Barry is pressed into service as a spy, dispatched to get information on the Chevalier de Balbari (Patrick Magee), a gambling man at the service of the Empress of Austria.

The Chevalier is a fellow Irishman, and upon encountering his countryman, Barry breaks down and confesses his duplicity. He becomes a double agent, feeding the Prussians false intelligence while enjoying the life of a libertine. He arranges an escape, “resolving thenceforth and forever to live the life of a gentleman.”

Barry sets his sights on marrying into title. He meets “a woman of fortune and condition,” the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and quickly romances her. Arriving at the pitch of life’s prosperity, he assumes the title Barry Lyndon. But her young son, the Lord Bullingdon, resents him from the start, and eventually leads Barry to his downfall.

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To the bewilderment of some, Stanley Kubrick followed Dr. Strangelove, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange with an adaptation of the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. Critics were at a loss to explain what attracted the visionary director to this material, particularly after the $11 million production failed to recoup its costs at the U.S. box office (it fared much better in Europe).

Kubrick had been interested in adapting Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but decided it was too long to be done as a three hour film, and watched as the BBC made a mini-series out of it. But, like most of Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon was ahead of the curve. It was twenty years before Jane Austen and costume dramas would become vogue again.

Barry Lyndon is one of those movies – like The Godfather – that you catch while channel surfing, and end up watching all the way through to the end. The duels that bookend the story are only one reason. This must be one of the most gorgeous – if not the most gorgeous – of films ever made. It vividly recreates the past, in its art, music and ceremony, while also commenting on how insignificant all that pomp and circumstance ultimately is.

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Martin Scorsese has called this his favorite Kubrick film, and I see why. To evoke 18th century paintings – particularly those by Thomas Gainsborough – Kubrick utilized lenses manufactured for NASA to use in satellite imagery. These enabled director of photography John Alcott to shoot using only natural light. Instead of images feeling like they were made by a camera, the film has the composition and texture of an oil painting from long ago.

The entire 184 minute film is that masterful. I typically cringe when Ryan O’Neal’s name is mentioned, but even his lack of acting range didn’t distract me. Michael Hordern’s warm narration, as well as Irish music by The Chieftans, lends the film a rich vitality. A simple scene where Barry encounters a young German widow and is invited to keep her company stunned me with its painterly detail, in a way no epic with cutting edge special effects could.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the cinematography, art direction, costume design and music were all honored as the best of a remarkable year that saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville and this film compete for Best Picture. Of all those great films, as far as achievement goes, Barry Lyndon stands out as the greatest.

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