by Vincent Canby
Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s handsome, assured screen adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s first novel, is so long and leisurely, so panoramic in its narrative scope, that it’s as much an environment as it is a conventional film. Its austerity of purpose defines it as a costume movie unlike any other you’ve seen.
Yet in the brilliance of its images the film surrounds you–the way good 19th-century novels do–with characters, events and little discourses on the curious ways of a world in which folly is recognized as a legitimate form of self-achievement.
Don’t be misled into thinking that Barry Lyndon is going to be a Tom Jones romp. The two films share a century (the 18th), one country (England) and the picaresque mode, but their concerns and styles are entirely different.
Barry Lyndon, which opened yesterday at the Ziegfeld and Baronet Theaters, might be most easily described as an 18th-century comedy of manners, though that doesn’t do justice to what Mr. Kubrick has attempted, which is coolly to examine a world as strange and distant in its way as were the future worlds of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange.
Some people may have difficulty with its length (over three hours, and every minute necessary) and its deliberate pacing (which I find luxurious, like sinking into a fine long book). They make the film a rigorous experience unless you give yourself up to the director’s method. Mr. Kubrick takes his own sweet time as he looks, examines, comments, enchants the eye frequently, but always remains a little distant. In a Kubrick film even genuine sentiments are so suspect that a scene that in any other director’s film would be sentimental becomes almost malicious.
Barry Lyndon is about foolish, gallant overreaching. It’s the story of the rise and fall of a poor, good-natured Irish opportunist, born Redmond Barry and later to take the name of Barry Lyndon, after his successful courtship of one of England’s richest aristocrats, the widowed Lady Lyndon, a beautiful vaporous woman whose high station gives her the right to be boring. The film has a great deal to say about the privileges of class.
When we first meet Barry (Ryan O’Neal) he is a naive, headstrong young man without a bean but with a terrific crush on a female cousin, whose English suitor he shoots in a duel. This sends Barry off to the Seven Years War in Germany, first in the English Army, then the Prussian.
As is the fashion in such literature, no situation remains permanent, and Barry in the course of what the narrator describes as “a wandering and disconnected life,” becomes, successively, a Prussian spy, a Continental gambler, a ladies’ man and, finally, a husband to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). This in the not-so-mock piety of the film, is his undoing.
Mr. Kubrick has spent a fortune on the film, and it shows, not only in the care that’s been taken in locations (England, Ireland and Germany), in the grand houses and in the battle scenes, but also in the photography of John Alcott.
One of Mr. Kubrick’s boldest decisions was to make the film as beautiful as it is. Good movies should not be too beautiful. It’s thought to be distracting if not a substitute for content. Yet the Alcott camerawork, which transforms scene after scene into something that suggests a Gainborough or a Watteau, has the function of setting us apart from Barry’s adventures, rather than tricking us into involvement.
Mr. O’Neal, who’s on the screen throughout, is, I think, fine, too self-assured for his own good, growing increasingly reckless as the film progresses and, at the end, a surprised wreck. Among the supporting players Murray Melvin (as Lady Lyndon’s resident priest), Marie Kean (as Barry’s ambitious mother) and Diana Koerner (as a pretty German fortune of war) are superb. Marisa Berenson splendidly suits her costumes and wigs.
As in every Kubrick film, the musical score is special indeed, though no one element in this film can stand apart from the others. They all fit together. Barry Lyndon is another fascinating challenge from one of our most remarkable, independent-minded directors.
The New York Times, December 19, 1975