FIRST PARADOX: Barry Lyndon, a story of an 18th century Irish gentleman-rogue, is the first novel of a great 19th century writer, William Makepeace Thackeray. It shows early signs of a genius that would nourish only after creative struggle and personal adversity. In time, this forgotten book becomes the basis for the tenth feature film by a well-established, well-rewarded 20th century artistDirector Stanley Kubrick. In it, he demonstrates the qualities that eluded Thackeray: singularity of vision, mature mastery of his medium, near-reckless courage in asserting through this work a claim not just to the distinction critics have already granted him but to greatness that time alone canand probably will confirm.
SECOND PARADOX: As he did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick relies not on words he is as sparing of them as Thackeray is profligatebut images to tell his story. Yet Barry Lyndon lacks the experimental, hallucinatory visual quality that made 2001 a cultural touchstone of the tripped-out '60s. Kubrick has shot and edited Barry Lyndon with the classic economy and elegance associated with the best works of the silent cinema. The frantic trompe 1'oeil manner all quick cuts and crazy anglesrecently favored by ambitious film makers (and audiences) has been rigorously rejected.
This drive for cinematic purity has consumed three years of Kubrick's life and $11 million of Warner Bros.' money. The film is 3 hr., 4 min. and 4 sec. long, and it does not easily yield up its themes. "The essence of dramatic form," says Kubrick, "is to let an idea come over people without its being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves."
THIRD PARADOX: Barry Lyndon is obviously a costume drama but in a much more literal sense than any movie easily dismissed by that contemptuous phrase. Many of the clothes are not costumes at all but authentic antiques. The equally real interiors arid landscapesevery foot of the film was shot on location are intended to function as something more than exotic delights for the eye. Close scrutiny of the settings reveals not only the character of the people who inhabit them but the spirit of the entire age as Kubrick understands it.
Though Barry Lyndon includes the duels, battles and romantic intrigues that we are conditioned to expect in movies about the past, it more often than not cuts away from this easy-to-savor material. This cool distancing suggests that the melodramatic passions normally sustaining our interest in films are petty matters. This vision of the past, like Kubrick's vision of the future in 2001, invites us to experience an alien world not through its characters but with themsensorially, viscerally. Stanley Kubrick's idea of what constitutes historical spectacle does not coincide with many people'sleast of all, those in Warner's sales department. Which brings us to the...