The directors 18 th-century epic is legendary for the adversities imposed upon its cast, with 150 takes for a single shooting not uncommon. But, four decades on, the cinemas superstars remain united in kudo of this beautiful, slow-burning masterpiece
In between the stark futurism of A Clockwork Orange and the floodlit horror of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick made an 18 th-century picaresque costume drama that was much less widely loved than either of those cinemas but endlessly more devastating. Barry Lyndon follows the adventures of an opportunistic Irish nitwit, Redmond Barry( Ryan ONeal ), as he clambers inelegantly up the social ladder in search of a title and a fortune. Those who disliked the picture on its release in 1975 quoth the pace, which even a snail is now considering a tad slacken. Defenders, such as Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard( cinema to marvel at) and Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times( a near-masterpiece) were outnumbered by doubters: Margaret Hinxman in the Sunday Telegraph discovered it stupefyingly dulls, while Derek Malcolm in the Guardian pages accused the director of tickling us to sleep. Even Steven Spielberg, who later brought Kubricks unmade project AI: Artificial Intelligence to the screen, likened the experience of watching Barry Lyndon to going through the Prado without lunch.
What is now apparent is that the slow-burn approach allows emotion to reach us in acidic drops-off rather than obliterating waves. A doleful narrator, Michael Hordern, pre-empts everything that occurs on screen, even disclosing, 45 minutes before the end of the film, what the outcome is likely to be. What is important is not what is going to happen, Kubrick insisted, but how it will happen. Painterly wide-shots keep the action at arms length, while the dominant camera move is a slow backwards zoom that leaves the characters dwarfed by the landscape. They are playthings and puppets, jerked around cruelly by fate for reasons that remain obscure to them. The casting had good reason to feel the same way, though at least they knew who was pulling the strings.