#290 Barry Lyndon
(1975, Stanley Kubrick)
I will probably never understand the appeal of period drama. I see the powdered wigs and corsets and I just want to run screaming. But perhaps that negative perception could change for me with Kubrick’s take on the genre – Barry Lyndon.
Barry Lyndon follows the life and times of an Irishman named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). He is seduced by his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who ultimately drops him and marries an English captain named John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), prompting Barry to kill him in a duel. Barry flees and ends up joining the English army. From there he deserts the army, becomes a spy in the Prussian army and generally does a bunch of other things and becomes a member of the aristocracy.
Straight away, Barry Lyndon did very little to win me over to the period drama genre. We start off with awkward seduction scenes between Barry and his cousin, where they reel off wordy semi-poetic lines that dance around the idea of sex, accompanied by some typically stiff reactions (not in that way!). Like all behaviour in period drama, it feels like a 20th century academic’s fantasy version of the 18th century.
And academic is a good description of much of the movie. Barry Lyndon is led by a dry, emotionless narration that sounds like an old 1970s documentary on the Seven Years War made for schoolchildren. It flatly describes the life of Barry and even likes to sometimes ramble on about the horrors of war, as if the narrator has snuck an essay he wrote as a teenager into the script and is forcing us to listen to him.
Naturally, this stiff, awkward dryness persists in the actions, with the exception of the few scenes featuring soldiers in the British army, who all inexplicably have over-the-top Cockney accents. This was easily the best part of the film because they were the first characters to feel like real people, although the accents were a little laughable at times. Everybody else was less interesting.
Barry himself is a dull character whose life doesn’t feel worth following to such a degree. He spends most of his time wandering about, and even the moment when he becomes a spy is ultimately just more high society nose-waving and stuffy accents, only now with more furtive glances.
The plot is also just boring. By focusing so heavily on this character with no character, there’s nothing to get invested in, nothing to get excited by, nothing to hold interest. The plot is a meandering slog as Barry Lyndon Does Things. What’s worse is the film likes to just skip ahead a lot when it feels like it, resulting a plot that feels very disjointed.
Is there anything I liked about Barry Lyndon? Well, it’s a Kubrick movie, so the attention to detail is expectedly phenomenal. Every prop, every set, every costume and every shot is constructed in meticulous detail. The problem is, while it certainly looks very pretty, it’s hard to watch cinematography alone for three hours. Even Koyaanisatsi knew this and chose not to outstay its welcome, but this movie wants to drag itself out just to squeeze out more pomp and circumstance.
Barry Lyndon is therefore not as good as other Kubrick works, so it’s easy to see why this isn’t as well-known. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I consider overrated, is a much more involving movie than this. Stick with this only if you really love period drama.
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Gay Hamilton, Godfrey Quigley and Steven Berkoff
Written by William Makepeace Thackeray (novel) and Stanley Kubrick
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Cinematography by John Alcott
Edited by Tony Lawson
Favourite Scene: The Cockney accents were the only bit of life in this movie.
Scene That Bugged Me: Those awkward seduction scenes at the beginning.
Watch it if: You love your period drama to resemble BBC school documentaries
Avoid it if: You like movies to engage you