Trying to determine a favourite Stanley Kubrick film is hard enough when you already know that no matter where you look, you’re bound to find something absolutely impressive along the ride. Yet for myself, I always turn back to Barry Lyndon whenever someone asks me, “What’s your favourite Kubrick movie?” Sure, it’s easy enough to point to 2001 or Dr. Strangelove for what they managed to accomplish for the time, but I always find myself in the most awe of Barry Lyndon, which always gets me unusual looks among my peers. For as easy as it may be to be afraid of approaching Barry Lyndon because of its length and the subject matter, I find that it also takes those fears and transforms them into a whole other world – one that places it leagues above any other period piece.
Stanley Kubrick’s films are known for their cynical portrait of the human condition and while that remains intact here, as it has been with everything since Dr. Strangelove, what sets Barry Lyndon apart is the count that it also happens to be one of his most empathetic. Even on that count, the titular Barry Lyndon as played by Ryan O’Neal is never shown to us to be a perfect figure but rather one who is overwhelmed by the circumstances around him – reflected flawlessly by the film’s aristocratic setting. Based on the novel The Lucky of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, Kubrick isn’t telling a story of aristocracy but rather instead a film that shows it under such a cynical light and created what is also the perfect antithesis to the Hollywood period epic.
Everything starts to shine brightly from the casting of Ryan O’Neal as the titular 18th century Irish rogue, together with an unreliable narration present by Michael Hordern. Seeing O’Neal as an Irish aristocrat is an odd casting choice and the film is aware that is perceived from the start, but that’s only a small factor as to why his performance is so mesmerizing. Barry Lyndon is a film about blankness, as O’Neal very rarely speaks in his role, and the unreliable narrator does not go beyond broad strokes as he tells us the story of Barry Lyndon himself – because it makes the viewer feel more as if they are truly placed within the setting and not merely gazing at it because of how beautiful it is.
This blankness is a big factor as to why the film also becomes so entertaining to watch, because it also leads to what would be some of Kubrick’s funniest scenes. Because there is no certainty as to what sort of figure Barry Lyndon himself is despite what he has all around him, it also presents the perfect sense of disconnect for audience members and environment. Kubrick makes fun of aristocracy, because of how straight-faced Ryan O’Neal’s performance is. And it’s clear from there that no one fits better to play such a character than Ryan O’Neal, because he never holds back on that very mood. With how Kubrick oversees what happens to Barry Lyndon himself, it encapsulates the overwhelming atmosphere of another era and their own positions of power.
Barry Lyndon is at its heart a tragedy, because the nature of Ryan O’Neal’s performance is one that does not ever shake away that feeling of self-pity. The way he reacts to the stature that he is placed within is what makes Barry Lyndon the perfect period piece. It is the perfect period piece because it does not make any exaggeration to human nature from a different era as the most sanitized portraits of such times that Hollywood has shown audiences over the years were making them out to be. Barry Lyndon is a man who is overcome by circumstance, and does not have a clear idea of how to react to the way the world around him is developing, whether it be in a smaller moment or during the war.
Given the source material, it’s also very fitting that Kubrick would have made Barry Lyndon feel so novel everywhere possible. The smallest details still have their most spectacular bits in the spotlight, and given Stanley Kubrick’s nature as a perfectionist it shouldn’t be any surprise. As a matter of fact, this is quite clearly the work of a most dedicated perfectionist, because there’s nothing about its setting or the imagery that ever feels off – and that’s why it also happens to be what I also believe to be Stanley Kubrick’s most beautiful film yet. Knowing that Kubrick has always adapted from literature, this is as close as he has ever gotten to feeling so close to that very quality because it feels like reading a novel, which is only the most fitting feeling for a film to tell a story set within the 17th century.
At three hours long, I can only imagine that the running time would only come off as very intimidating but there was not a single second in which I was bored watching Barry Lyndon. Just the sheer scope of such a work is absolutely outstanding and what Stanley Kubrick makes of the setting is enough to make a wholly mesmerizing piece of work, because it’s so meticulous in its craft and flows so smoothly in its pace, making every second of the running time feel earned. There is never a sequence that feels bloated, or even cold, because it feels like Kubrick went far enough to go ahead and break everything expected of costume dramas in the best way possible.
This is not a film that Stanley Kubrick would have intended to be told in such a straightforward manner because it never has an objective viewpoint on its own subject. It has always baffled me that of the many late-era Stanley Kubrick films this was often one that seemed overlooked in comparison to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange in spite of its own Oscar nominations from the time. If Kubrick’s perfectionist methods have ever found themselves at their fullest, I believe that Barry Lyndon represents a dedicated stylist who went for what would almost be so impossible given what would be expected. And for that very reason, I believe that this is Stanley Kubrick’s finest achievement.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Warner Bros.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, from the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner, Gay Hamilton
Release Year: 1975
Running Time: 187 minutes