Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner
When opportunity strikes, it takes the right kind of person to take advantage of it. Connecting opportunities consecutively can lead you to some prominence, but the secret of true success comes from maintaining it. In a way, Barry Lyndon serves as a cautionary tale but also the embodiment of being in the right place at the right time.
After being scared away by his family due to him interfering with his cousin entering a financially advantageous marriage, Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) lives a life of incredible circumstance. He joins multiple armies in order to survive and eventually finds himself married to a Duchess, which would set him up for life, but the man just continues to get in his own way.
When looking at Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, many of his brilliant films encompass the style that has made him a legend. From the pensive science-fiction or hard-hitting genre fare, Barry Lyndon always felt like an incredibly unique selection. It felt like Kubrick looked at other period pieces and thought, “let me try this out” and he certainly knocked it out of the park. Running at over three hours, this film moves in a way that captures the rise and fall of a man in spectacular fashion.
The morals are not ambiguous in this feature, as it details how a man of Lyndon’s stature can rise to prominence. It comes from his lack of backbone and integrity. He has never found something he couldn’t turn into an opportunity, including stealing a captain’s coat to walk away from a war he was forced to participate in, or even joining another army. Lyndon does not stand for anything except for achieving pleasure for himself and employing pure weasel-like behavior to maintain it. With all of his faults, Lyndon remains such a fascinating character that it becomes incredibly difficult to dislike him. It really speaks to the performance of Ryan O’Neal. With each step he takes towards garnering more money and social standing, I found myself rooting for him just to see how far he’ll go. Lyndon finds himself in so many peculiar situations, but he always manages to leverage it in a way that helps him, which should be admired at the very least. However, the inevitability sets in when you realize that nothing will be enough to satisfy this man. It becomes the ultimate act of self-preservation.
As with any period piece, the costumes and production design look majestic in detailing life in 18th century England. From the muddy carriage rides and all of the halls the characters inhabit, it brings you into this world just as Lyndon sees it, a ripe chance to continue his ascent. The real magic comes from the lighting taking place at night. I cannot express just how impressive it was to watch the candlelit scenes, which should be impossible to capture but looks stunning in the film. Every scene could be paused to show the incredible detail in the filmmaking and how immersive the set decoration looks. You could frame any screen capture and hang it up on your wall, it just looks that beautiful.
The narrative gets split into two parts and it displays the timeless belief that money and success do not change people, it merely amplifies who they’ve always been. With more access to wealth and funds, Lyndon proves himself to be a true snake, which gets reflected on the woman he marries in order to rise to prominence, Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). This character is key to the development of the story and how it shows the true impact of Lyndon’s behavior. Most of the other actions that take place in the first part detail mostly victimless crimes that the titular character commits in order to evade danger and seek notoriety. Some moments are incredibly comedic in because you can’t believe he’s getting away with it. When he gets married to Lady Lyndon and even takes her name as part of the marriage, the human cost to his antics can be felt and it solidifies that we should no longer be rooting for this man. Marisa Berenson displays this pain and anguish of someone looking for a partner but receives an unfaithful scoundrel of a man that does not care for her. Lady Lyndon represents the heart of the film, which Lyndon has no issue stomping on for his pleasure, which begets his eventual and inevitable decline.
With Barry Lyndon feeling so different from Kubrick’s other films in a spectacular way, I do not begrudge that large swath of folks who believe this to be his masterpiece. With a director with so many, just add it onto the pile of innovative work this detail-oriented man brought to cinema. With this film, he brought us into an expansive world where opportunities may come from nothing, but if one takes it, the fruits can be worthwhile. We get those in our world as well, but as the story warns, the fall could be met if one loses themselves to their circumstance.