In some ways, Barry Lyndon is an even more obvious Stanley Kubrick joke than Dr. Strangelove. A costume epic that pokes fun of other costume epics even as it outdoes them, this is the point at which Kubrick’s black humor crosses over into blatant parody.
Based on an 1844 novel by William Thackeray, Barry Lyndon follows a sniveling, opportunistic Irish farm boy (Ryan O’Neal) whose adventures take him across Europe, into wars, atop great fortune and back again. Whether Barry is on top of the world or marching in the muck of it, however, the picture’s withering perspective on his and other forms of human folly remains constant. It’s perhaps best summed up by an onlooker’s observation before one of the film’s handful of pistol duels: “This is a silly business.”
The comedy comes in two varieties. There are the straightforward gags, including an early robbery in which two polite thieves ambush the naive Barry as he proudly trots through the forest. (“You can put down your hands now Mr. Barry.”) Far funnier, though, is the spoofing tone you can sense in nearly every scene. Some of this is purely audible, such as the insistent Irish whistle on the soundtrack and the self-mocking voiceover narration. (“To make a long story short…” we hear at one point in this three hour and four minute film.) At other times the lampooning might be unintentional, at least on the part of some of those involved. Surely O’Neal is being sincere, even as Kubrick adorns his painfully wooden turn with bigger and bigger wigs and whiter and whiter makeup. He’s more than willing to let his lead play the clown.
Barry Lyndon is a costume epic that pokes fun of other costume epics even as it outdoes them.
As is usually the case with Kubrick, most of the sincere elements in the film are technical. There are candlelight tableaus here of astonishing richness (the cinematography is by John Alcott). The aforementioned duels are each shot and edited with an admirably ruthless precision. And the landscapes – especially those shot on location in Ireland – are as awesome as anything in 2001.
Those landscapes are especially instructive, as Kubrick often begins a scene in medium shot, focusing on a character, and then slowly pulls back to reveal their insignificance amidst the grandeur of nature. This, rather than the tracking shot, could be Kubrick’s signature, because it emphasizes the attitude that so many of his movies take toward the people within them. They’re depicted as little more than ants, scurrying about on “silly business” that means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
That’s not to say Barry Lyndon is completely heartless. As Lady Lyndon, the aristocratic widower Barry cozies up to in the film’s second half, Marisa Berenson’s performance is so authentically tremulous that it can’t be undermined by any of the surrounding lampoonery. And a climactic duel, between Lyndon and his vengeful stepson (Leon Vitali), manages to be both grimly amusing and strangely affecting. It features Barry’s sole act of pure selflessness, followed by his darkly comic “reward.”
Barry Lyndon ends with a literal one-liner on a title card: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.” It’s a flippant deflation of all that has come before – a claim that nothing we’ve watched really matters – yet the joke was lost on the Academy Awards. Like so many thoroughly forthright costume epics before and since, Barry Lyndon was nominated for seven Oscars. Kubrick won none, tellingly, but the movie itself took home four.