When Stanley Kubrick released “Barry Lyndon” in 1975, he shocked — and then disappointed — sci-fi-hungry audiences with a costume drama whose action seemed overshadowed by the director’s obsession with the tedious minutia of 18th-century English culture and custom.
In his previous two films, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), Kubrick establishes himself as an impresario of human vitality, serving up panoramic visions of the future’s wonders and terrors. “Barry Lyndon” isn’t like these films. It’s a moving picture. Each frame is a painting, and each painting an elusive portrait.
The story follows the titular Irish rogue Redmond Barry of Barrytown — through his philandering in the Seven Years’ War, his youthful wins at the royal card tables of Europe, and his eventual marriage into the English nobility — but filtered through a deadpan narrator (Michael Hordern), who deflates every one of Barry’s good turns with promises of pride and a fall. When Barry does lose his ill-gotten livelihood at the hands of his adopted son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), it’s hard to feel anything (good or bad) for the old cad.
But this is all by design. “Barry Lyndon” is based on the novel “The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.” (1844) by William Makepeace Thackeray, which holds the distinction as “the first novel without a hero.” While Thackery delights in mocking his morally vacant subject, Kubrick extends the conceit even further; he neglects Barry almost entirely in favor of recreating the decadent period settings of Hanoverian England.
But this is the project’s beauty. Kubrick never mistreats his characters openly. Rather, he flattens them into painterly details on a portrait of an age that valued pretense and correct conduct over a strong interior life. To achieve this effect, he imitates the opulent portraiture of Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds (both of whose work hangs prominently in Detroit Institute of Arts). In most scenes, he only uses natural light (or candle light, with special lenses originally developed by NASA to take deep space photographs).
The effect is a world that appears solid and stately. Kubrick only probes deeper once, in a scene where Barry beats Bullingdon within an inch of his life. It’s shot like a boxing match on a handheld camera — in a style as jolting as the shakes that would characterize much of Kubrick’s next film, “The Shining.”
And just for a moment, we see that beneath every ordered sheen broods a terrifying madness.