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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.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Probably Ryan O’neal’s last good film.