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Barry Lyndon (1975)

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Main image of Barry Lyndon (1975)
187 minutes, colour 35mm
DirectorStanley Kubrick
ProductionWarner Bros.
CompaniesHawk Films
 Peregrine Productions
ProducerStanley Kubrick
ScreenplayStanley Kubrick
CinematographyJohn Alcott
Art DirectorRoy Walker

Cast: Barry Lyndon/Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal); Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon); Patrick Magee (Chevalier De Balibari); Hardy Kruger (Captain Potzdorf); Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd); Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady); Marie Kean (Mrs Barry); Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt)

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A young Irishman's picaresque rise and catastrophic fall at the time of the Seven Years War.

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Barry Lyndon received mixed reviews on its release, widely described as the beautiful but cold product of a director obsessed with technique. However the counterpoint between its meditative pace, sharply ironic tone and the exploration of Kubrick's familiar themes places it at the centre of the director's achievements.

Thackeray's "Alas! We are the sport of destiny" could be the epigraph for many of Kubrick's films, and fate drives the narrative as Barry, despite his ambition, is buffeted from event to event. The two-part structure charts a rise and fall similar to Kubrick's own Lolita (1962), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). However, the characters have different levels of dynamism: Tom Cruise's semi-catatonic performance in Kubrick's last film attracted the same sort of criticism that met Ryan O'Neal's Barry and model-turned-actress Maria Berensen's Lady Lyndon, though they are immensely effective on their own terms, while Michael Hordern's knowing narration is a witty and ironic foil to the characters' helplessness.

The exquisite, Gainsborough-inspired imagery is not simply a beautiful gown for the film but, with its intense colours and perfectly balanced compositions, reflects the rigidly stratified society of the time. Much was made of the NASA lenses used to capture scenes lit only by candles, but this now seems less an affectation than a way of intensifying the atmosphere. The camera's frequent slow dollies backwards, from a small detail to the wider scene, echo the plot's revelations and the inexorability of fate.

For all its length, Lyndon is tightly structured, heavily reliant on symmetries and doublings, a maze of mirrors with events reflecting back and forth against each other, constantly making us reassess our feelings about characters and events. Card games and duels recur throughout, underlining the role of chance.

One of the film's four Oscars was for the score, though it comprises lengthy cues of pre-existing music to which, as was his habit, Kubrick edits the images. It links events and ideas, tracing Barry's progress from peasantry, through the army and into gentility. Nora and the German girl are backed by the folk song, 'The Women of Ireland', while the Countess Lyndon brings Schubert's wistful Piano Trio. But the last word goes to Handel's obsessive 'Sarabande', the title and end music and accompaniment to the two major duels, reminding us of implacable fate and man's insignificance before it.

John Riley

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Video Clips
1. First love: Nora (3:00)
2. Firing (2:84)
Adam, Ken (1921-)
Alcott, John (1931-1986)
Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)
Lawson, Tony
Magee, Patrick (1922-1982)
Morell, André (1909-1978)
Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)
Literary Adaptation