Blu-ray Review: Barry Lyndon

William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon relates the colorful adventures of an Irish itinerant who tries his hand at war, gambling, and financially profitable marriage while traveling through 18th-century Europe. Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 adaptation, like many of the director’s other films (including Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket), is heartily anti-militaristic and generally cynical about heroism, nobility, and the rest of those fine feelings that the rich can afford to affect.

Played by Ryan O’Neal, the titular character is a selfish, mean-spirited, and unfaithful opportunist. As such, he isn’t particularly likable — but he’s honest in his dishonesty and full of energy, so we can accept him as a protagonist, the same way we accept Alex in A Clockwork Orange. And empathizing with all his scoundrelly shenanigans (as he brings utter misery upon himself) does allow for a little self-reflection and self-questioning by the viewer.

John Alcott’s Oscar-winning cinematography uses soft, even lighting — some sequences being shot without any electrical illumination, relying instead on candles and superfast lenses. Combine that with a very static camera, the film’s slow pace, and some masterful tableau compositions, and the whole look of Barry Lyndon seems to bring to life a series of paintings by artists of the period, such as William Hogarth, or the earlier Georges de La Tour. (The film also won Oscars for art direction, costume design, and music.)