Blind Spot 77: Barry Lyndon

There’s always something intimidating about a Stanley Kubrick film. You know you aren’t going to get something run-of-the-mill or mainstream. It’s going to challenge me and be fresh and inventive. He’s an impressive director because he tackled so many different genres from comedy (Dr Strangelove) to scifi (2001: A Space Odyssey) to the film we are talking about for this blind spot choice Barry Lyndon– a historical period piece.

To be honest, as a big fan of period pieces I expected to like this film more than I did. I came away from it feeling it is handsomely mounted and well-made, but emotionally distant and bland.

I’m not saying Barry Lyndon is a bad movie. It just didn’t do a lot to excite me or draw me into the story. I think it is one of those classics I’m glad I’ve seen but can’t ever imagine watching again.

It tells the story of Barry Lyndon who is a rogue in 18th century England who fights in war and then woes a rich widow to take advantage of her social status and connections.

Barry Lyndon is over 3 hours which usually isn’t a problem for me with period pieces. I recently watched the 2006 Jane Eyre and the 1995 Pride and Prejudice which are both over 4 hours with enthusiasm. The problem was I just didn’t feel that attached to Barry or any of the other characters. Again, it wasn’t bad. Just not that engrossing or interesting.

I can see why it won Oscars for score, costumes, art direction and cinematography. All of that is exemplary and very well done. The acting is also excellent by Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, and more.

I appreciated the intermission, and I did enjoy the second half more than the first because war movies aren’t my favorite but again the characters and story left me flat. Someday they should do a movie from Lady Lyndon’s perspective because she is treated terribly by Barry and others. The narrator (Michael Hordern) sometimes gives us insight into her and other characters, but I could have used even more.

I had read Barry Lyndon is “one of the best and most influential films ever made” so maybe my expectations were too high? I guess I can see production-wise but the characters and story were nowhere near on that level in my opinion. If it’s a favorite of yours let me know why and what I missed.

6 out of 10

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4 thoughts on “Blind Spot 77: Barry Lyndon

  1. Sad you didn’t enjoy this. For me, it’s his greatest picture, and I found it hugely emotional. Much of the tragedy comes from the constant juxtaposition between the desires of the characters and the indifference of the universe. The camera keeps pulling back and putting their foibles in cosmic context, their smallness always stressed, and games of chance, cards and so on always stressing how buffeted by fate and indeterminism they are. This all climaxes with Barry relinquishing his will – setting aside his gun – and still getting punished.

    The music is gorgeous too and despite the length, I actually think it is better paced than a number of his other long films.

  2. I found the film informative, droll, and pretty clear-eyed about the hypocrisies of an era of Europe where soldiers went to war without the foggiest idea of why they were fighting and even who they were fighting against. If you study history of this time, it’s a hodgepodge of kingdoms, empires, and fledgling republics making alliances and breaking them and duking it out endlessly while prattling on about rationalism and enlightenment virtues of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness but meanwhile the state is constantly pitting nobles against commoners and nobles against each other to maintain the balance of power. Unlike, say, Jane Austen, whose focus remained grounded on the landed gentry of Britain, the writer of behind the novel behind this film William Thackeray travelled throughout Europe and had a pretty good eye for the time period described in this film (he was from the generations succeeding it but still had an interest in such topics); the gambling, the soldiers, the farmers, the nobles, the kings, emperors, wars, thriving cultural cities, fashion, customs, languages, poverty, etc.
    I think the closing narration exemplifies the tone of the film, that of a satirical and bemused observer who nonetheless has some sympathy. That tone is deliberately non-traditional and slightly misanthropic. Still, the social climbing of the era was relatively realistic. Marriages as we all well know were political. Hell, the Austrian Empire was famous for growing their empire through diplomacy and political marriages as opposed to saber rattling (unlike the Prussians, who as they say in the film, were pretty war-hungry and had no troubles buying and forcing foreigners to fight in their armies).
    The dog-eat-dog duel-happy world of this era and the hypocritical doctrines of the ruling class towards its subjects has a habit of giving birth to scoundrels like Barry Lyndon. Behind the affected manners and lavish makeup and clothes of the courts and gentry of Europe, there was a deep ideological vacuum that religion had previously filled only to be upended by the new enlightenment ideals that had a tendency to make people amoral.
    I know I’m sounding overly verbose. But the fact remains, Europe was being torn apart in this era by constant wars and foolish ideals and it was only until the congress of Vienna (well after the French Revolution and the calamities that succeeded it) that Europe found relative peace for a long time.
    so yeah, within context, I found the film interesting in that aspect. Of course, it’s coldness is deliberate and is definitely off-putting to most mainstream audiences. But the technical details are, like you said, really great.
    I wouldn’t say I loved it either but it is a good representation of the (very dryly British) spirit of the novel.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold this up as one of the great movies. What can live up to that kind of reputation? I can see how all you say is true. Where would you rank it in the Kubrick war films? I think Strangelove is still my favorite.

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