- There are a few films that may be equal to Barry Lyndon’s visual beauty (from Days of Heaven, In the Mood For Love, others– including works from the great Kubrick himself) – but none that I’d say are comfortably superior
- Many aspects of Kubrick’s masterpiece are worthy of praise, but I want to get to the main point quickly- the film is driven by a rigorous, formal, visual approach using technology (the zoom lens) on masterful compositions. The Shining is largely driven by tracking shots (through the advent and development of the Steadicam) and here it is the zoom, and it has never been used better (though Altman in the other massive 1975 masterpiece Nashville is close). In 50+ compositions, Kubrick either starts in a close-up and slowly zooms out to reveal a gorgeously mounted cinematic landscape painting, or, he starts in the wider shot with the gorgeously mounted cinematic painting, and slowly zooms in for a closer look.
- Kubrick uses the purposefully trivial titles for his two part (with epilogue) epic
- brilliant use of Piano Trio in E Flat by Schubert
- Filming took place over the course of two years and 300 days—many shots taking 25, 50, 100 times- certainly more David Fincher (Kubrick predates Fincher obviously) than Eastwood
- The opening frame is a duel—which is fitting. It is a frame Kubrick holds, there are varying depths of field on display– different natural level elevations and obstructions giving it a rich complexity
- The wry voice-over from Michael Hordern lets Kubrick’s camera zoom in and out (there are a few camera movements but not many) and there isn’t honestly that much in-scene dialogue to catch for a 3+ hour film. The lack of in-scene dialogue lets the lens float in and out on the models holding poses. Certainly, it feels like it has to be an influence on Roy Andersson. Von Trier is a big admirer of the film. We have the savage voice-over (Dogville) and those establishing shots that he uses as chapter breaks in Breaking the Waves. Kubrick is clearly influenced by the work of Thomas Gainsborough with those landscapes.
- Kubrick constantly defuses the narrative by letting Hordern’s voice spoil the story– giving away the plot points before they happen. “as you’ll soon see”. Kubrick even cuts off his own narrator mid-sentence during an obituary (telling you how he feels about death) just before the intermission
- It is all a charade to Kubrick- the cold, pristine, instructive way he delivers the life of this man—the absurdity of the seven year war backdrop, love, lust, greed, it is all undercut by his caustic sense of humor and nihilistic worldview. Cynically, the ups and downs of Barry Lyndon’s life are revealed, “wandering” used in the text several times. A chilly randomness to this life
- Much has been made of the triumph of natural lighting and Kubrick’s work with candles and the praise and hype is all warranted. The exteriors are often shot using natural light as well and this is closer to Malick’s achievement in Days of Heaven in that use than I had previously thought.
- There are too many sublime cinematic paintings to grab. There are 50-100 and I have less than 20 on the page. The introduction of Lady Lyndon hallway through the film almost exactly at 92 minutes with the tracking shot and the zoom in on here didn’t make the cut, the shot of the pool and the gardens at 98minutes that looks like it is out of Last Year at Marienbad didn’t either. The shot of two in close-up with O’Neal smoking at 105 minutes doesn’t either.
- Several times we get the magnificent castle reflecting off the pond shot establishing shot
- Awe-inspiring costume work and period detail and specificity—this has passed every film before it in this regard and influenced every period film since from Marie Antoinette to The Favourite
- Makes for a companion piece with A Clockwork Orange and not just because of the camera zooms. This novel (from Thackeray) is said to be the first one without a hero and that had to appeal to Kubrick
- You could write an entire paper on Ryan O’Neal and whether he’s the right actor for the job, or it is a good performance. I’ve seen the film five times and I don’t think it is either a brilliant performance or a horrible one. Apparently Warner Brokers told Kubrick he has to have a top 10 star at the time of financing to back the film and given the age of the character it was either going to be O’Neal or Redford and Redford turned it down. With a lesser budget and better actor I don’t think we have the same film. O’Neal certainly doesn’t ruin the film (far from it given the masterpiece status) but he isn’t one of the major reasons it is on that level either. I think many critics are too hard on his character though. Lyndon is scoundrel and an empty vessel in many ways— but the relationship with his son makes him more complex than critics portray him. And if Kubrick was trying to simply critique him- they would have made the step-son a more likeable character in contrast
- The 140 minute shot of his son on his lap with the massive painting backdrop is a jaw-dropper
- At 143 minutes the dining table natural light pouring in composition — spectacular
- There is a one-minute long tracking shot of his step-son walking into the bar to challenge him to a duel at the 160 minute mark. O’Neal is passed out on the chair with other drunk posing. It is one of the greatest single frames in cinema history
- Starts with a duel, ends with a duel—we get the windows with the light pouring in for the final battle
- A masterpiece among masterpieces
Good review, after your viewing you will move Barry Lyndon up or will stay in the same place?
I think it’s top 50
@Aldo- I want to give it some time but I’m certainly looking at a few films in my top 100 that it should indeed be ahead of
It’s great that you praise the use of the zoom lens so highly. I think zooms are a cinema technique that filmmakers and critics too often take for granted, when they in fact can be used to dramatically elevate a film’s quality. The dolly zoom is, of course, one of cinema’s most exciting little tricks that Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese, and others have utilized. The crash zooms of Wes Anderson, Truffaut, and more are nearly as invigorating. Tarkovsky and Altman have illustrated that you don’t need to be quick and snappy to have masterful zooming as well. However, I think Stanley Kubrick is the master of the technique. Would you agree? In fact, I might consider Kubrick’s use of it one of his best attributes. Many filmmakers choose to do a rather small, medium speed zoom at certain points, but Kubrick crafts them quite quickly or quite slowly. I think the crash zooms in Dr. Strangelove are one of the main aspects of the movie, aside from the brilliant War Room set, that elevate the film to become masterful art rather than just brilliant satire. The Shining has one zoom onto Danny’s face, and probably some others, that is so quick one could be forgiven for thinking it was a cut. The slow zooming you described in Barry Lyndon is stunning as well.
@Graham- yeah the slow zoom is no longer in vogue. Someone wrote about how the tracking shot is a better simulation of the human experience (walking, running, etc) and hey- I love a good tracking shot– but I’m not ranking techniques, you can be awed by either. Certainly nobody did it better than Kubrick. Altman, Pakula come to mind pretty quickly after as well. In fact I probably think of Altman first, not that he does it better than Kubrick, just that Kubrick is like Scorsese or Hitchcock where they do just about everything so well so I don’t associate them so closely (Wes and QT sort of the same) with the zoom.
After reading this review I feel I need to watch it again ASAP. Only seen it once a couple of years back but was so impressed with the scope and how gorgeous it looks that it’s 3rd on my Kubrick ranking and a top 50 film all time. Am overdue for a rewatch.
Watching Barry Lyndon (maybe 5th viewing?)
– This may sound strange, but I couldn’t help but notice similarities between Barry Lyndon and Forrest Gump. They are both passive adult characters who are a little off (obviously more so with Gump). With both of them it seems things happen to them more then they make things happen. They both live incredible lives and sort of accidently stumble into important historical events (Vietnam War, 7 Years War) and situations.
– Ryan O’Neal was an amateur boxer.
– Underrated humor, John Quin’s face when Redmond hands Nora the ribbon or Quin’s face when Redmond refuses to apologize right before their duel.
– Ryan O’Neal’s performance has grown on me overtime. Barry is a character without any redeeming qualities or any authentic personality aside from being a fortune chaser and I have to question if using a different actor would have dramatically improved the film. I can understand the criticisms but at the same time I am starting to think O’Neal’s underacting works quite well. It also sets up the scenes where he shows a great deal of emotions like when his uncle is killed in battle and he breaks down intensely.
– Kubrick wanted to do a Napoleon film, but the commercial failure of Waterloo (1970) prevented this so Kubrick used his research of the time period and put it toward Barry Lyndon
– Kubrick seems to have a great deal of contempt for the people of this era and their faux manners and etiquette. This is consistent with his standard questioning of the goodness of humankind.
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