Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
This month, we’re opening our aperture to admire the works of Stanley Kubrick.
The picaresque Barry Lyndon is the unloved black sheep of Stanley Kubrick‘s filmographic family. This three-hour monolith is likely skipped over by all except the most devoted of Kubrickian obsessives. A shame, as it’s an easy 180-minute sitting, thanks to its episodic nature and sardonic undercurrent. Barry Lyndon feels whip-fast, despite being as still and intricately composed as cinema gets.
Based on William Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, it stars a charming and restrained Ryan O’Neal as the eponymous scoundrel. The picture concerns the cunning Barry’s unending efforts to elevate his standing and bathe in the riches and women that come with a title. As a pauper in Ireland, he’s rebuffed by his cousin Nora in favour of a well-to-do English captain. Putting his pride and lust above the captain’s promise of monetary restitution, Barry challenges him to a duel and winds up victorious. He flees from the law, joins the English army, and later ends up fighting with the Prussians. Over the years, he’s recognised as a war hero, hired as a spy, and trained as a grifter, all in the course of his fated journey to the status of English Count.
*Mild spoiler alert.*
His meteoric rise could be attributed to immense intelligence or dumb luck. Regardless, if he was cosmically rewarded for exceeding his lot in life, he’s similarly cursed once securing his dream position. Barry marries a Countess (Marisa Berenson), takes her last name, and enjoys all the hedonistic pleasures that come with it. Her son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), cannot abide Barry, however, and resents the affection bestowed upon their child Bryan (David Morley). Their rivalry leads to a mirroring of the first inciting incidents, and Barry is left with nothing; no pride, no heir, and no title. But hey, it was one hell of a ride!
*End of spoilers.*
It’s a cliché to remark how exquisitely constructed Kubrick’s films are, and much has already been written about his and cinematographer John Alcott’s revolutionary shooting and lighting style. Still, clichés are affirmed and words proven inadequate when you’re actually confronted with the beauty of the thing. Even harder to grasp than their complex compositions is the way in which they imbue humour, dread, and tragedy into every frame, and convey perfect period detail while still making it feel modern, even 37 years later.
Next week: The Kubrick marathon has ended, but don’t you forget about us! We kick off a Brat Pack marathon by spending morning detention with The Breakfast Club.
Barry Lyndon is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and can be streamed via Quickflix’s WatchNow service.