Of all the classics that Stanley Kubrick had crafted throughout his filmmaking career, Barry Lyndon was the one I was least interested to check out. Period dramas aren’t really my thing for I find this genre of cinema far too preoccupied with its lush set pieces, period-specific make-up & antique costumes than the main story at hand and while this cinema does check mark all those elements, there is something about it that sets it apart.
From the moment the famous classical composition, Sarabande, by Handel opens the film by accompanying that Warner Bros. logo, Barry Lyndon had my attention. But what eventually left me absolutely flabbergasted was just how extraordinarily beautiful its images were from the first frame to the last. It’s the most authentic looking period piece in cinema history and the way Kubrick has brought it to life is an unprecedented achievement in itself.
A fictional account set in 18th century England, the story of Barry Lyndon is narrated in two parts and covers the adventures of its titular character. The first part follows an Irish named Redmond Barry and covers the journey & the means by which he acquired the title of Barry Lyndon. The second part covers the fall that followed after his rags to riches arc in the first half as we see Barry becoming increasingly obsessive with nobility which ultimately results in his tragic downfall.
Written, produced & directed by Stanley Kubrick, Barry Lyndon features all the trademarks of the legendary auteur and presents him setting a new bar for photography in filmmaking. Shot mainly on location, the film effectively captures the timeline its story is set in, thanks to the in-depth research of 18th century period, its magnificently detailed set pieces as well as its immaculate costume design. Also, Kubrick’s insistence to use natural light to capture majority of its sequences is one aspect that never fails to impress.
Cinematography is without a doubt the most impressive & influential aspect of Barry Lyndon. A jaw-dropping achievement that has innovation written all over it, the camera is static for the most part and makes efficient use of close-ups, steady zoom-in or zoom-outs. Relying only on natural light to film its drama, the camera employs specific lenses that allows it to capture sharp images in even low-light conditions as evident in its night sequences which uses just a few candles as the only light source for the whole set. And it looks truly unique.
The radiant glow of the night segments is highly reminiscent of its period and also matches the colour composition of various paintings depicting the night settings of that era. Images of daylight are no slouch either as in every scene, the background looks like a huge canvas of a gorgeous painting, and the sheer beauty of it is so breathtaking that one can pause any given moment and that frame is pretty much destined to look beautiful on any wall. Kubrick also makes another aspect work flawlessly for the classical tracks compliment the narrative amazingly well.
Editing isn’t much of an issue for the story remains compelling to an extent throughout its demanding runtime. The pacing is slow and takes us through many snippets of Barry’s life, but some of it could’ve been left out. Those 187 minutes are frightening from afar but if you fall under the spell of its beauty, then it becomes a far smoother ride. The cast comprises of Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee & Hardy Krüger with O’Neal impressing the most. His character arc is wonderfully written, undergoes a full circle and O’Neal does his given role a complete justice and is finely supported by the rest.
On an overall scale, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is the closest cinema has ever come to emulate the elegance & aesthetic quality of a popular painting on the film celluloid. Yet, this isn’t a film that everyone is going to love even if they end up admiring the heck out of it. Its overlong story, inaccessible characters & relaxed pace are things that might veer some viewers off the course. Nevertheless, this is one cinema that needs to be looked at & marvelled upon the same way people observe the brushstrokes on a beautiful portrait. An aesthetic, artistic & influential classic in every way that’s in a league of its own, Barry Lyndon is period filmmaking at its most dazzling. Don’t miss it.