An Irish scrapper slowly rises through the ranks of English aristocracy.
Kubrick is certainly a versatile director, and never has that been more evident than in his aristocratic masterpiece, “Barry Lyndon”. While Barry Lyndon is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, it’s not as talked about as some of Kubrick’s other work. It’s not as profound as “2001: A Space Odyssey”, not as exciting as “Full Metal Jacket”, not as funny as “Lolita” or “Dr. Strangelove”, not as rousing as “Spartacus” or “Paths of Glory”, not as messed up or ironic as A Clockwork Orange, nor as terrifying as The Shinning. While I personally wouldn’t say this is one of my favorite Kubrick films, I can appreciate its beauty and the brilliance that went into making a movie this epic. The story is that of a man who is a scrapper and a gambler, and its fun to watch a rogue rise through the ranks of an aristocracy where he doesn’t fully belong. There are some brilliantly intense scenes in this movie, as well as some wonderfully comic ones, and the mise-en-scene alone makes this film worth watching.
“I’d as soon go to Dublin as to Hell.”
Our story begins with Barry (Ryan O’Neal, “Paper Moon”) as a young man, naively in love and obsessed with his older cousin, Nora (Gay Hamilton, “A Challenge for Robin Hood”). Nora’s heart belongs to an English officer named John Quin (Leonard Rossiter, “Oliver!”), so Barry challenges the officer in a duel. Believing he’s killed the officer, Barry flees and eventually joins the army due to lack of money. Through a series of lies and misadventures, Barry rises through the ranks in the army, and eventually becomes the servant of a professional gambler, eventually catapulting him into the life of the idle rich. Barry struggles to maintain his wealth and importance as he solidifies himself in that lifestyle.
So, first off, I love the way this story plays out. It feels like a Dickensian novel, slowly introducing characters, letting you know their backstories, flushing out the importance of certain locations, and overall just letting the story unfold at a deliberate pace. The story feels very episodic at the beginning; a lot of the story is just Barry doing one thing and then the fallout from whatever previously happened. Barry’s story feels rather aimless, as he himself doesn’t even seem to know what he wants from life. He travels from one place to another, most of the time doing whatever he fancies; sometimes the result is good, and sometimes it’s not, but the result is almost always compelling. I actually preferred the first half of this film to the second; the first half shows us Barry struggles to rise in the ranks, while the second half of the film shows us his struggles to maintain his rank. The first half of the film seems to be always moving- we’re always meeting new characters and things are almost always happening. Barry himself is constantly on the move so as not to get caught in one scheme or another. The second half of the film is interesting, but it’s interesting in a different sort of way, and I personally found the latter half of the film to drag a bit more. There are certainly some interesting moments, and the film seems to constantly make comments about the class struggle during this time period, but as far as pacing, the film really slows down for a good forty minutes in the middle. The climax ramps up the tension again and its probably the best scene in the film, but for about an hour after the intermission the pacing is far more deliberate.
While the story of Barry Lyndon is epic (though slow at times), it’s the cinematography that brought me back to this film again. This is one of the most beautiful looking films of all time- nigh every shot is purposefully made to look like a Victorian painting, and the result is simply amazing. The way people and objects are framed and aligned, the color tones and palettes, even the very subtle way that some shots show barely any sort of motion. The way this film looks is great enough to warrant watching the film twice, because everything is beautifully and masterfully put together. This film famously used primarily natural light, and even had to have lenses specially crafted by NASA so as to shoot the scenes lit with candles. The resulting beauty this film displays is unmatched. The costumes and production design are amazing as well, and they’re only further accentuated by the wonderful cinematography.
This is a great film in a way that’s different from a lot of other Kubrick films. If you were to come to me and ask what Kubrick film you should start with, I can guarantee this wouldn’t be the first one that comes to mind. As a film, it’s a technical masterpiece and it’s absolutely beautiful to behold, and I can appreciate the amazing technical prowess that went into making this film, but I still find the story a little slow in some parts. I absolutely recommend seeing it, especially for cinephiles or Kubrick fans, but if you’re just a casual moviegoer, maybe start somewhere else for Kubrick.
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