Stanley Kubrick’s series of film morality plays continues with Barry Lyndon, a most elegant and handsome adaptation of William Makepiece Thackeray’s early 19th-century novel. Ryan O’Neal’s excellent performance captures the shallow opportunism endemic to the title character who is brought down as much by his own flaws as by the mores of the ordered social structure of 18th-century England. Casting, concept and execution are all superb.
O’Neal’s character evolves from a passive, likable Irish lad, enamored of cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), whose eyes are fixed on the pocketbook of British officer Capt. Quin (Leonard Rossiter). Conned into fleeing his home after a fake duel, Barry learns about life from a highwayman (Arthur O’Sullivan), a Prussian captor-benefactor (Hardy Kruger) and spy (Patrick Magee).
Barry emerges from these trials as a cynical manipulator of people, instead of a life-hardened person retaining some nobility. The pile of victims grows ever larger, eventually including a wealthy widow (Marisa Berenson) whose means provide a possible avenue to Barry’s social and financial security in a peerage.
The 184-minute film has two acts – 102 minutes up from the back country to Berenson, 82 minutes downhill to a clouded and defeated end. Michael Hordern’s excellent narration intones the Greek chorus commentary.
Kubrick’s outstanding external landscapes – in rich, cool tones – overpower the ant-like people crawling about; his interiors – hot, uncomfortable despite their plushness – seem unnatural in contrast. This cinematic mural bears repeated and sustained watching without ever really commanding and demanding acute attention. Could anyone else have pulled this off? Not since the days of those great David O. Selznick-George Cukor productions.
1975: Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Adapted Scoring.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay