Based off William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, story follows the life of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) from his first love with his cousin, through his trials through the army and his excursions through Europe as he becomes a gentleman and finds a new wealthy love interest. Her son stands in the way of his fortune and constantly dishonors him. In the second half, events turn tragic. But really, it seems that the major turning points in his life are the result of old fashioned duels.
There are some interesting characters that impact Barry’s life. While in the Prussian army, Barry befriends The Chevalier (Patrick Magee), an Irish in disguise. Between the white powdered wig, moles and eye patch, you’re never sure where to look at him. He helps Barry become a gentlemen and meet his wife. Later, Barry’s stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) is the picture 18th century brats. He blatantly rebels against his step father and snivels at any attempt to correct him. As an adult his cowardice only grows and becomes embarrassing to watch.
Ryan O’Neal has already established in Love Story his ability to cry on command, an old talent that comes in handy in the second half of the film. Thankfully, in 18th century Europe there isn’t much need for a variety of emotions. O’Neal can show throw a few punches, shoot a musket and keep cool. But when it comes to an emotion that doesn’t involve tears or kicking someones knickered ass it lies flat and unbelievable.
It’s the narrator who pulls us into the story. The disembodied voice brings a strange, pompous yet delicate style to the film that O’Neal’s face just cannot compete with. It’s this wonderful tone between storybook and History channel narration. He fills in the details or back story that would only exhaust the viewer well past this three hour mark. A good sidekick to the narration is the soundtrack. It fills the film with lovely Victorian marches that help give the story some rhythm and a nice loud beat when the dialogue is so quite all the time.
Barry Lyndon is one of Stanley Kubrick’s most “unKubrick” films, but my eye reminds me it’s all his. Shots have a wonderfully symmetrical and Kubrick feel. Often, we get that brilliant shot where the camera starts zoomed in on something, usually a face and it slowly pans out to show everything (lavish scenery, other characters, objects out of place) around the central focus. I remember this technique being very affective in in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Outdoor shots are very nice and show off the scenery well. The lush countryside along the river with birds chirping is just lovely. One of my favorite settings is a candlelit bar surrounded with buck heads on the walls. It just brings out that morbidly odd feel I enjoy most about Kubrick films.
I would like to break Barry Lyndon down into positives and negatives. Negatives: three valuable hours of your life, O’Neal doesn’t make us care about Barry and 18th century Europe can be a bit boring to some viewers. Positives: the soundtrack is nice, the narrator keeps you interested and Kubrick keeps it looking fresh. Take it or leave it.