by Dilys Powell
Of course, one thought when one heard that Stanley Kubrick was planning a film of Barry Lyndon, of course he will make something unexpected out of it. True that after the experiments of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, the adventures of Thackeray’s unprincipled Irish hero seem conventional. The eighteenth-century pursuits, duelling, soldiering, gambling, fortune-hunting, the lot undertaken in ambition to live as a gentleman of fashion — just the material, you might say, for a Hollywood spectacular, all swords and snuff. But as a director Kubrick is unpredictable.
Well, at last Barry Lyndon bursts out all over London. It is unexpected all right. But it isn’t the kind of unexpectedness one had expected.
Let me qualify. It is unexpectedly beautiful. I don’t mean that Kubrick’s work is ever less than visually satisfying. The headlong flight through space in 2001 was a journey among extraordinary abstracts. A Clockwork Orange comprised pitiless, brilliant caricatures. But in both films the visual qualities were at the service of the narrative. In Barry Lyndon they often exist in their own right. There are warm, glowing, candlelit interiors; they might be by some Dutch master. Meadows stretch beyond the reeds fringing the misty streams, landscapes shaped by famous designers fold themselves round the great houses. You don’t dwell, as the film dwells, on Stourhead, you don’t insist, as Kubrick has insisted, on special lenses for candlelight photography unless you are deeply involved in the aesthetics of colour, distance, composition.
Did I say Barry Lyndon had burst out? It is paced out, all three hours and five minutes of it. And it even needs a narrator to link the episodes. There is a great deal going on — enlisting, deserting, cheating at cards, marriage to a rich widow, quarrels with a stepson, bereavement. Not as much as in Thackeray, and Kubrick has done quite a bit of cutting and altering. I wouldn’t myself complain of the omissions, for I don’t find the events on the printed page particularly interesting. But it does seem to me that he has left out the one element which makes Barry Lyndon something more than politely picaresque. Barry is a courageous scoundrel, dashing, honest with himself. But his story is a Snob’s Progress. Thackeray satirised it. Kubrick tells it straight. And that certainly is unexpected.
What can have attracted the director to the subject? Desire to withdraw from the terrors of the future? A virtuoso’s longing to exercise his gifts in a change of mood? And the mood is indeed changed. But the faintly romantic feeling stirred by the exquisite images conflicts with the element of bravado in the central character – though as a matter of fact Ryan O’Neal plays him rather modestly. One mood destroys the other, and the playing doesn’t help. As the Countess, Marisa Berenson does little more than look lovely (or sometimes distraught).
Patrick Magee (the Chevalier) and Hardy Kruger (the Prussian Captain) entertain as far as they are allowed. But only Leonard Rossiter as Captain Quin contributes a few moments of happy absurdity. And I come out of the cinema feeling respectful, exhausted, and distinctly dispirited.
The Sunday Times, December 1975
Republished in Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen: Fifty Years at the Films