Is Barry Lyndon the greatest film Stanley Kubrick ever made?

Forty years after it left critics cold this majestic tragi-comedy stands as a testament to a true master of his craft.

Words

David Hayles

When Warner Bros released Barry Lyndon on VHS in the early ’80s, they gave it a massive marketing push. It’s a Stanley Kubrick film, after all, but the main reason was that the film had been a massive disappointment for the studio upon theatrical release – critical responses were lukewarm, with one describing it as the film equivalent of a coffee table book. It was among the biggest flops of 1975, and missed out on the major Oscars the following year. Resultantly, Warners were hoping to recoup some of their investment in the booming home video market.

I remember seeing a full window display for it in my local video shop and dismissing it as a bloated epic in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, or a tiresome historical romp like Tom Jones. But this was precisely wrong, and a perception that might have been one of the reasons Barry Lyndon initially failed to chime with cinemagoers, fearing they might be bored stiff by a three-hour adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th century novel. Around the same time audiences were flocking to see Jaws and Rocky; not a corset or powdered wig in sight.

Barry Lyndon is as much a period drama as Full Metal Jacket is a war film, or 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi. Kubrick used genres simply as worlds to explore, to invert, and to experiment with – a place to work through the notion that man will eventually make all the wrong decisions in the mistaken belief that they are to his own best advantage. The title character himself is a “common opportunist” who gambles, whores, fights and cheats his way to the top of English aristocracy, without so much as batting an eyelid.

A Georgian Don Draper (with a similarly dubious war record), he’s effortlessly charming and aggravatingly detached, inscrutable and unknowable. But a mere scratch of the surface reveals a deeply complex, confounding persona. In fact, in describing the director in his Kubrick biography from 1997, John Baxter offers a thumbnail sketch of Lyndon: “Observing the world as he did, like a voyeur, placed a protective barrier between his mind and the realities of existence.” It could be a line from the film’s knowing voiceover, fruitily voiced by Michael Hordern.

The studio told Kubrick that he had to cast a proven big name star, but the director went with Ryan O’Neal. Surely he was too bland, too tanned, too Hollywood for the part of an Irish rogue? Actually, the casting of O’Neal was a masterstroke. Like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, it is difficult now to think of anyone else playing the part. Kubrick tapped the con man O’Neal from 1973’s Paper Moon, rather than the toothsome hunk from 1970’s Love Story, the film that made him a household name. A restrained performance in an era that favoured showy thespian histrionics, some felt the actor was out of his depth, but in practice he captures the character perfectly. He’s a blank canvas, an everyman who things happen to. A man buffeted by fate.

O’Neal’s performance coupled with Kurbrick’s usual meticulous attention to detail (which famously drove production designer Ken Adam to a nervous breakdown) and shots framed like Thomas Gainsborough paintings make for an extraordinary viewing experience. But Barry Lyndon is, at its heart, a black comedy, and there are moments reined in just this side of Pythonesque lunacy – including a pair of duelling scenes that manage to be both hysterical and gut-wrenching. The action scenes, which describe the ludicrous formality of 18th combat during the Seven Years’ War, are simply extraordinary.

Barry Lyndon is an erotically charged, languid, utterly tragic film, so rich in texture that it rewards multiple repeat viewings. Four decades on, there’s even a strong argument to be made that it is the greatest film Stanley Kubrick ever made.

Barry Lyndon returns to selected UK cinemas 29 July courtesy of the BFI.

Published 26 Jul 2016

Tags: Ken Adam Ryan O’Neal Stanley Kubrick

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