(4 of 9)
In the novel, Thackeray used a torrent of words to demonstrate Barry's lack of self-knowledge. Narrating his own story, Barry so obviously exaggerates his claims to exemplary behavior that the reader perceives he is essentially a braggart and poltroon. Daringly, Kubrick uses silence to make the same point. "People like Barry are successful because they are not obviousthey don't announce themselves," says Kubrick. So it is mainly by the look in Ryan O'Neal's eyesa sharp glint when he spies the main chance, a gaze of hurt befuddlement when things go awrythat we understand Barry's motives. And since he cannot see his own face, we can be certain he is not aware of these self-betrayals. According to Kubrick, Barry's silence also implies that "he is not very bright," he is an overreacher who "gets in over his head in situations he doesn't fully understand." Though a certain dimness makes him a less obviously comic figure than he is in the book, it also makes him a more believable one. And it permits Kubrick to demonstrate, without shattering the movie's tone, Barry's two nearly saving gracesphysical gallantry and desperate love of his only child, whose death is the film's emotional high point and the tragedy that finally undoes Barry.
With the exception of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, this is the first time that Kubrick has moved beyond pop archetypes and taken the measure of a man with a novelist's sense of psychological nuance. Still, it is not as a study in character that Barry Lyndon will be ultimately remembered. The structure of the work is truly novel. In addition, Kubrick has assembled perhaps the most ravishing set of images ever printed on a single strip of celluloid. These virtues are related: the structure would not work without Kubrick's sustaining mastery of the camera, lighting and composition; the images would not be so powerful if the director had not devised a narrative structure spacious enough for them to pile up with overwhelming impressiveness.
As a design, Barry Lyndon is marvelously simple. The first half offers something like a documentary of 18th century manners and morals. To be sure, a lot happens to Barry in this segmentfirst love, first duel, first wanderings, first military combatbut he remains pretty much a figure in the foreground, rather like those little paper cutouts architects place on their models to give a sense of scale. What matters to the director is the world beyond, the world Barry is so anxious to conquer.