Barry Lyndon; odd name that. Both modern and ancient, straight forward and enigmatic, much like that of our director, Stanley Kubrick.
Our main character here is Redmond Barry a poor Irish lad who, through luck and ambition, becomes Barry Lyndon. He is driven by two urges: love and money. The choices he makes between these common enemies seal his fate in this grand tale of an 18th century adventurer.
The influence of money is overwhelming. From the peasant to the soldier on wages, the gambler to the kept man, Barry Lyndon is stolen from and paid off. Nowhere is the ludicrous world of money better shown than in the contrast between the stately homes and the rural life beyond their walls. In the countryside the sheep graze freely yet when the wealthy get their way we see the sheep in a different light: playing the part of miniature horses as they power a tiny carriage for an overindulged little Lord. The question is: where are they happier? The same can be asked of Lyndon who pursues money and aristocracy only to find the elaborate garb and lifestyle restricting his essential nature.
Love for his flirtatious cousin sets our hero on his adventure. To make his claim as her suitor he needs wealth and the standing of a gentleman. This leads to the first of a number of duels that punctuate the film like choruses in a song. The duels showcase the formality that Barry, and the audience, are drawn toward. Tradition and procedure are lovingly reproduced here along with well, everything. Kubrick’s eye for detail ensures that the period is conveyed (or at least seems to be) with utter accuracy. This push beyond the surface splendour means that instead of being weighed down by pomp and circumstance the situations actually seem real. We accept this world and characters despite them being as close to modern life as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the duels to the dances, the clothes to the settings, all seem to chime into that musical rhythm that is so particular to Kubrick.
The oddity amongst this authenticity is the choice of lead actor. On the face of it (or him) Ryan O’Neal is more 1970s Santa Monica than 1750s Dublin. Perhaps his casting adds to a character often out of his depth or maybe Kubrick had one eye on the money this star would bring. What if our Lyndon had been Alan Bates? Beneath his solid exterior would fizz intent, wounded pride, and glory glimpsed but never achieved. As it is O’Neal is often a blank canvas, effective until the later stages when the character ages and the blonde locks turn grey. In contrast to O’Neal is a supporting cast of brilliant nuance. Leonard Rossiter as the gentleman officer, Steven Berkoff the unwise gambler, Patrick Magee the mentor and Marisa Berenson the Lady of the manor whose disintegration is shown with the subtlest flicker behind her eyes. Overseeing all our narrator, the inimitable Michael Hordern, his voice so full of warmth and wit guiding us on this journey with sly affection.
Barry Lyndon the film is both utterly complete and a victim of itself. The problem conveying an episodic adventure is that when our hero does linger we get itchy feet. Lyndon is a man without his name and an adventurer without adventure who seems undermined by his own movie, stuck within this world. But what a world. Beautifully lit and realised this is a huge and detailed painting that Kubrick zooms in and out of, his camera locating people doomed to play their respective parts and fearful of a world beyond the frame.
‘Barry Lyndon‘ is released today by the BFI in cinemas across the UK