Why, then, is Barry Lyndon a masterpiece? Because it uncannily captures the shape and rhythm of a human life in a way few other films have; because Kubrick's command of design and landscape is never decorative but always apiece with his hero's journey; and because every last detail counts. Even the film's chilly style is thawed by the warm narration of the great English actor Michael Hordern and the Irish songs of the Chieftains. Poor Barry's life doesn't matter much in the end, yet the care Kubrick brings to the telling of it is perhaps the director's most compassionate gesture toward that most peculiar species of animal called man. And the final, wry title card provides the perfect Kubrickian sendoff--a sentiment that is even more poignant since Kubrick's premature death. --Robert Horton
The story follows the trials and travails of an Irishman named Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal). Born into poverty on a small farm, Barry first runs into trouble during his teens when he falls in love with his cousin. The family seeks to remove young Redmond from the picture because an English officer, a Captain Quinn, has taken a shine to the girl. If they allow the cousins to marry, the family will not take part in the officer's considerable wealth. Barry refuses to play along, challenging the Englishman to a duel whereupon he promptly puts a bullet through the officer's chest. Whisked away from the scene by family members concerned about the duel, our hero joins the English army as a way to escape from his bleak future. Then comes war, with England fighting nearly everyone else on the continent. Barry, unimpressed with the idea of dying for his king, deserts but soon falls into the hands of the enemy. Faced with the threat of execution, Redmond agrees to join the Prussian Army, which turns out to be worse than his stint with the English. Fortune smiles when the Irishman saves the life of an officer, an officer with connections to the ministry of information. A plot is hatched whereby Redmond Barry will act as a confidante of the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a French diplomat suspected of espionage.
De Balibari is actually an Irishman living in exile, a fact that causes Redmond Barry to confess his true identity to the man. The Chevalier, impressed with such honesty, promptly takes his fellow countryman into his confidence. The two form a plan that allows them both to sneak out of the country, whereupon they take up lives as confidence men and swindlers on the continent. It is during his tenure as a card shark that Barry meets Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a beautiful and extremely wealthy woman married to the ancient, crotchety Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass). Redmond ingratiates himself into Lady Lyndon's graces to the point that when her husband dies, the good lady marries our hero. Redmond Barry disappears, replaced by Barry Lyndon, a wealthy man with property, money, and connections. Lyndon knows his success depends on his wife, so he spends enormous sums to curry favor with the court. He hopes to acquire his own title, which would translate into his own property and money deeded him by the Crown. Life isn't all roses, as Barry Lyndon must cope with Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), Lady Lyndon's sullen and hateful son as well as his wife's suspicious assistant Reverend Samuel Runt. Lyndon thinks he's got it made when his wife gives birth to a child, Bryan, who carries the precious noble blood. What goes up must invariably come down, however, as a series of massive tragedies rock the Lyndon household.
"Barry Lyndon" is an intriguing film. One wonders why Kubrick made it. Perhaps the director liked the idea of an underclass individual scheming his way into the rigid upper classes of the time. Perhaps the movie is a morality tale about a ruthless scalawag eventually getting what he deserves. If the answer is the latter, I don't think it works. If Barry Lyndon were truly ruthless, he would have seen to it that Lord Bullingdon pulled a disappearing act. Doing so would have assured his child's role as heir of the Lyndon title. Whatever the reasons behind this film, you don't have to worry about it too much to enjoy Kubrick's work. The set pieces and costumes are phenomenal, the acting wonderful, the photography breathtaking. Especially developed for this film was a special camera lens that could work by candlelight. The musical score consists of Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach, Schubert, and Handel.
Arguably the best element of the film is the way Kubrick places his characters in a way that resemble paintings of the period. Pay attention to the scenes that take place in the garden where Barry meets Lady Lyndon or the confrontation between Bullingdon and Barry at the gentleman's club. You can literally see characters move into position and pose as though for a portrait. And that final duel! I could watch that scene a million times-and probably have. A wonderful film, "Barry Lyndon" on DVD contains only a trailer as an extra. I'm not complaining too much, though. The movie is more than enough reason to buy the DVD. Watch it and wonder.