A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” is almost aggressive in its cool detachment It defies us to care, it forces us to remain detached about its stately elegance. Many of its developments take place offscreen, the narrator consistently tells us what’s about to happen and we learn long before the film ends that its hero will die poor and childless. This news doesn’t much depress us, because Kubrick has directed Ryan O’Neal in the title role as if he were a still life. It’s difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character.
And yet the film has the arrogance of genius. Never mind how much it cost, how many years it was in the making. How many directors would have Stanley Kubrick’s confidence in taking this mass of historical fact and fiction, this ultimately inconsequential story of a young man’s rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that absolutely dictates our attitude toward it? We don’t just see Kubrick’s movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on -- unless we’re so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance.
Stanley Kubrick’s work, it’s often pointed out, has a sense of detachment, of bloodlessness. The most “human” character in his “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) was the computer, and “A Clockwork Orange” (1971} was disturbing in the objectivity of its approach to violence (even its title -- Anthony Burgess’s, but it
must have caught Stanley Kubrick’s eye on the shelf) illustrates Kubrick’s attitude to his material. He likes to take organic subjects and disassemble them as if they were mechanical. It’s not just that he wants to know what makes us tick;
what’s compulsive is his conviction that we do all tick.
With “Barry Lyndon,” based on a novel by Thackeray, he has a very nearly ideal subject for the exploration of this theme. His hero is a young man that things happen to Barry seems to exercise little conscious control over his life. He falls into a foolish adolescent love, has to leave the district suddenly after a duel, enlists almost absentmindedly in the British Army, fights in Europe, deserts from not one but both sides, falls in with influential and unscrupulous companions, marries a woman of wealth and beauty and then destroys his own world because he lacks the character to survive in it. And all of these things seem accidental there’s no reason why they must happen, no theory of life or character that drives the hero to his end.