A more beautifully scenic film–it is stupendously gorgeous–you could not find elsewhere in the sweep of cinema, this astonishing masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick set amidst pinnacles of upper-class life in seventeenth century Europe.
The picaresque hero, Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal), makes a fateful and paradisaically ambitious journey to gain wealthy refuge and must rely largely on himself in reaching sanctuary on a green and graceful promontory far above the forlorn, lower world he discovers as a young, rebellious, impulsive, archetypal outcast without breeding and advantage. Kubrick, that dark anthropologist of the blood-lusting weaponized killer human, here has reimagined the largely fatalistic and genteel Thackeray’s story of what is finally the Genesis story itself, sans the Deity and starring humankind (and there can never be enough original variations on such a fundamentally true tale).
Lyndon is primally impulsive at nearly every decisive moment in his adventures of ascent, his predatory swampish self leaping out both helpfully and hurtfully on battlefields and in impoverished villages, elegant cityscapes, country estates and grand manors of nobility, the places of the minuet and the sonnet, rendered as heroic paintings of European civilization. Kubrick’s scenes of unbroken cultural magnificence have been compared to Gainsborough’s masterpieces.
One of the great joys of Barry Lyndon is that you are in such a classic world yet one that does our own experience in the real world considerable justice. And the picaresque hero, called later by other names such as the self-made man, is a grand storytelling device, allowing the hero adventures on any and all levels of society: an invention of the panorama, here an arc of rising and falling, the latter from the mid-flight stall ensuing from the hero’s inevitable fatal flaw, the invincible sway of his much older violent self from dire primeval times long mentally but not viscerally forgotten.
Lyndon eventually becomes a creature of velvet and silk, fine horses and enormous manor rooms whose windows look out on seemingly endless sweeping green scenes of gardens and statues and sculpted shrubbery and pastoral vistas.
But Lyndon, like all of us a creature of more than one self, falls from his refuge because his primordial self cannot be imprisoned in the dungeons beneath the ramparts of civilization. Just as J. M. Barrie says: “Every man’s life is a diary in which he means to write one story and writes another.” Humankind’s conflicting sides bring the binary irony we must expect and must reflect on as, finally, an inscrutability.
A timeless, transporting, grounding film of our human drama.