Barry Lyndon

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This often breathtaking exploration of the world of Thackeray’s titular eighteenth-century Irish adventurer – showing at the centre of the BFI Southbank’s unmissable two-month Stanley Kubrick season – is the nearest the great director ever came to realising his uppermost ambition, to film a life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Thus all the grand armies, dashing uniforms and suffusion of gunsmoke (here pertaining to the pre-Bonaparte Seven Years’ War). Another kind of smoke pervades the series of lowly Irish farmsteads, elegant brothels and imposing country houses through which the film’s antihero, Redmond Barry (played by then fashionable, fresh-faced hot property Ryan O’Neal), fights, duels, gambles and seduces his way to success and back again – that of a million candles, the natural source of illumination that Kubrick insisted on using, to the astonishment of cinematographer John Alcott, to render authentic interiors.

Despite that, much of the atmosphere, decor, mannerisms and performances are fake (not least the ridiculous turns by Murray Melvin, Leonard Rossiter and the insipid Marisa Berenson) – not that it matters much. It’s not only the beautifully intoned third-person narration (by Michael Horden), the consummate mise-en-scène and stunning photography but the iron-strong confidence of direction that help transform Thackeray’s lively picaresque tale into one of cinema’s most heartfelt and sustained (it runs over three hours), if cynical, visions of an individual’s powerlessness when confronted with the impersonal, mangling machinery of power and fate. What a magnificent, mesmeric slow dance it is, not merely of death but of an ambitious man’s inexorable decline.

A relative failure at the time (1975) – despite Ken Adam’s Oscar for design – it improves with each passing year, although it must take part of the blame for making the immortal strains of Handel’s Sarabande the evergreen Classic FM favourite it is.

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Cast and crew

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenwriter: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Ryan O'Neal
Marisa Berenson
Patrick Magee
Hardy Krüger
Steven Berkoff
Gay Hamilton
Marie Kean
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