How does one describe Barry Lyndon? How does one describe every painting in a large museum of masterworks? There is no question that this is the most beautiful movie ever made. Not only that, but I can think of no other movie where every frame is perfectly composed. There are outdoor scenes where he must have waited hours for the perfect light in the distance. There are indoor scenes lit by thousands of candles in chandeliers, or only three candles sitting on a table. This was revolutionary; they had to use a special Zeiss super-fast 50mm f/0.7 lens developed by Zeiss for the moon landings. The whole film was shot with virtually no electric lighting. (Kubrick was always at the cutting edge of technology, from the brand-new special effects of 2001 to the extensive use of the new Steadicam in The Shining.) Many of the costumes were actual antiques. The result of all this attention to detail gives us a look no other film has ever achieved, as if the camera had actually gone through time to this earlier age. Time after time the camera starts on a close shot and pulls slowly, slowly back, each frame revealing more and more, until we are in a landscape painting by Turner or (no kidding) the Englishman John Varley (1778-1842).
Those who don’t love it complain of the glacial pace, and the lack of emotion in many scenes. I can see that, but I myself think of it as the stately grace of the dances of the time, of a minuet. And, true, the acting is not overly emotional, but take a look at the absolutely devastating duel between Barry and his stepson, one of the most tense scenes ever filmed. Look at the stunning scene of the red line of British troops marching stolidly into withering rifle fire. They actually fought like that! Now, it’s true that I would never have picked Ryan O’Neal for the starring role, but even the great Kubrick had to make commercial choices now and then—and he was not above promoting his films. To get financing, he had to cast someone from the Top Ten box offices stars of the previous year, and Ryan was #2. (Really! Love Story). Number 1? Clint Eastwood. Of the other seven (#6 was Barbra Streisand), all of them would have been as bad as Eastwood, or worse. And I think O’Neal fit in pretty well, actually. I like to watch this film every other year or so, or five years at the most.