After receiving death threats in the wake of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick headed to Ireland to adapt Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon only to be threatened by the IRA to leave the country. Talk about a Troubled production.
This story of an 18th-century Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) crams enormous detail into three hours, intermission included. The epic tale of opportunism, skulduggery and tragedy feels like David Copperfield and Hamlet wrestling beneath a powdered wig. Like Gone With the Wind it comprises rising fortune its first half and decay in its second, but marked by a cynicism closer to that of its historical contemporary The Madness of King George.
Kubrick juxtaposes the beautiful backdrop of English, Irish and German scenic estates with its “noble” residents’ shallow squabbles and cruel machinations, taking a dim view of the ruling classes and their mercenary skirmishes. The director and his regular cinematographer John Alcott continue to break new ground with scenes lit entirely by candlelight, based on the realist satire of William Hogarth paintings and gloomily scored by Handel’s Sarabande.
O’Neal is compelling as the man “determined never again to fall from the rank of a gentleman,” tricking his way towards the fortune that would ultimately be his ruin. Michael Hordern’s narration is swimming in dramatic irony, constantly foretelling Lyndon’s doom as he’s tossed between good and bad fortune like a wooden ship in a cyclone. Every scene bubbles with Kubrick’s caustic wit and keen satire, alongside appearances from Steven Berkoff and Leonard Rossiter.
Swirling with historical detail, splashes of homoeroticism and enough pistol duels to fill several Westerns, Barry Lyndon is another meticulous Kubrick production whose circumstances add another layer of irony to a drama steeped in it.