Movie Review: Barry Lyndon (1975)

“Great was his rise…And much greater his fall.”

3 Stars
Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)


Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee

Synopsis: A working-class Irish youth determines to become a gentleman in 18th Century England.


Having focused on a nihilistic youth of the future wilfully operating outside established social codes and conventions in Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick turned his attention to the attempts of a youth in 18th Century England to fit into a closed society to which he didn’t belong in his adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon.   Lyndon, played largely with a mask-like lack of expression by a mournful Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon), begins life as Redmond Barry, a working class Irish youth, whose innocent love for his feckless cousin is sabotaged by a comparatively wealthy British Captain (Leonard Rossiter – 2001: A Space Odyssey), who steals her from him with a smirk and a promise to pay off her father’s debts.   Wounded and outraged by this insult, Barry challenges the officer to a duel – which he unexpectedly wins, necessitating a hasty flight to Dublin.

Throughout the film, Lyndon’s life and fortune are decided by the duels in which he engages, whether through the use of conventional weapons – swords, pistols, and even fists – or less customary ones, such as words and manners.   He joins the British Army, having been robbed of the money given to him by his family to aid his flight, and wins the respect of his comrades by fighting and beating a man much bigger than himself.   Later, a gambling dispute is decided with swordplay.   Again, Lyndon is victorious, although his vanquished opponent is the wronged party.   The money funds a flight from Prussia and the Prussian army into which he’d been forcibly drafted after deserting from his British regiment.   Even later, a rare noble act performed during a duel precipitates his fall from the status and privilege he had attained through his marriage to Lady Lynley (Marisa Berenson – Cabaret), the pretty widow of a British government minister.

Barry Lyndon is one of literature’s first – if not the first – anti-hero.   We are never invited to like or admire him, and yet we gain no pleasure from the way that his single-minded pursuit of a rank and status beyond his birth-right transforms him from an innocent, love-struck youth to a joyless, selfish man unable – or unwilling – to grasp the fact that the circles in which he longs to move do not care for him.   He’s as much a victim of his own desires (which, to some degree, we all share), as he is of the cloistered aristocracy who so politely and comprehensively shun him, and Barry Lyndon is more of an indictment of a society which encourages such divides than of an individual.

Many criticise the performance of O’Neal in the title role, but, in a strange way, the carefully composed neutrality of Lyndon’s expression suits an actor of limited ability.   O’Neal’s performance lacks emotion not because he is a poor actor – which he is – but because the part demands it.  His face is a mask behind which Lyndon hides his true self from those he wishes to impress.   Having said that, O’Neal so badly fumbles the rare chances he’s given to emote that one can’t help suspect his face is deliberately hidden from the camera by Kubrick on at least two of these occasions.   To be fair to the director, O’Neal was more or less forced upon him by the studio’s insistence that he select his leading man from one of the ten top box office performers from the previous year.   This meant he had to choose from O’Neal, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, Paul Newman, John Wayne or Marlon Brando!

Some might be frustrated by the film’s slow pace and monumental three-hour running time, but the droll, and not unsympathetic narration from Michael Hordern (a departure from the first-person narrative of Thackeray’s book) and the film’s beauty provide plenty for the patient viewer to admire, including Kubrick’s typically painstaking attention to detail for his recreation of 18th Century Britain.   He uses the screen in the same way that an artist uses his canvas, and the temptation to pause the picture to appreciate the rich detail and ethereal beauty of most of the establishing shots is almost constant.   Not quite a classic, then, due to O’Neal’s deficiencies as an actor, and a slightly protracted final act which perhaps dwells a little too long on Lyndon’s downfall, but Barry Lyndon is still one not to be missed.

(Reviewed 7th June 2016)

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