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A cinematic epic in the truest sense of the word, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, based on the novel penned by William Makepeace Thackeray in 1844, is set in the Ireland of the Eighteenth Century. Here in a small village lives a farm boy named Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neil) who, unfortunately, falls in love with his cousin Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton), who does not return his affections. Barry is handsome and charming but so too is an arrogant narcissist, much to the dismay of his mother (Marie Kean). Shortly after Barry's father passes away, Nora gets engaged to a British army captain named John Quin (Leonard Rossiter). Barry challenges him to a duel and he wins. From there he travels to Dublin but along the way is attacked by bandits. With no other lot left in life, he reluctantly joins the British army himself and winds up going off to fight the Seven Years War.
It isn't all that long before he deserts and then, again with no better options, joins up with the Prussian Army. When his quick thinking helps him save the life of his commanding officer, Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger), Barry is basically promoted and works as a spy. But once the war is over, he winds up becoming a professional gambler after becoming close to Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a man that he was supposed to be spying on for Potzdorf. Barry's idea of fair play is a bit skewed, however. When he's called out for cheating, his tendency is to challenge his opponent, again, to a duel. Eventually he winds up marrying Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and taking her last name. But being who he is, quickly does away with her sizeable wealth. She learns quickly to see through his lies and deceptions, but her son, Lord Bullington (Leon Vitali), from an earlier marriage decides that it's time to do something about this…
Kubrick takes a fairly humorous novel and turns into a pretty serious film with this adaptation, playing things completely straight (save for a handful of comical intertitles here and there). There's no winking to the camera and there's no pandering to the audience here. Kubrick's style is often said to be cold and detached but that isn't really the case here (or in most of his films), it's that his characters tend to experience life at its worst. This happens a lot in this particular film, as our central character, hardly a hero, swindles and cheats his way from one mark to the next. We don't like Barry, and we're not supposed to like Barry. He's a bastard, a lie and a thief. It would have been easy to play the characters for laughs but Kubrick doesn't take that approach and instead the film is heavy on drama and character development, at times feeling almost like a character study as much as a traditional narrative.
But it not only works, it works incredibly well. Ever the perfectionist, Kubrick's eye for composition and detail is in full swing here. Every frame of this picture is cinematic perfection and the influence of classical fine art is evident throughout (and was completely intentional on the part of the director). Throughout the three hour running time we're treated to epic battle scenes, scenes of bourgeois grandeur, shots showcasing the beauty of the Irish countryside and plenty more. All of this is done with remarkable attention to detail not just in the lighting and composition but in the costuming and use of music as well.
Complementing the film's perfect visual style are some excellent performances. Ryan O'Neal, not likely the first name anyone thinks of when discussing great actors, is excellent in the lead. Granted, this is a part that plays to his strengths both in terms of his acting style and his appearance, but he really is great here. Again, we don't like Barry, but we definitely want to find out how his story ends and what will become of him. Supporting work from Gay Hamilton and Marie Kean early in the film is noteworthy, while later on we get excellent turns from the great Patrick Magee and interesting work from Hardy Krüger. The lovey Marisa Berenson is also excellent here as Barry's put upon wife and Leon Vitali also stands out for his work in the picture. The narration fills in what the performances can't but by and large everyone that appears in the picture does very fine work indeed.
Criterion puts Barry Lyndon on its own 50GB Blu-ray disc, a smart move given its running time of roughly three hours, and placed the extras on a second 50GB disc. The transfer, presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and framed at 1.66.1 widescreen, is taken from a new 4k restoration of the film's original negative and it looks excellent. Detail is typically outstanding, even in scenes where it could get soft like those where there is heavy musket fire, and there's appreciable depth and texture throughout. Skin tones look perfect, never too pink or too hot, while black levels are basically reference quality. There are no noticeable issues with any compression artifacts and the image is pretty much pristine, there's no serious print damage here at all. Edge enhancement and obvious noise reduction problems are a non-issue, while the film's grain structure remains completely intact. This is a beautiful picture, through and through.
There are two audio options for the feature, an English language LPCM Mono track and a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH only. The 5.1 track spreads out the score and effects rather well, while purists will opt for the mono option. Neither track has any issues to report, each is clear and succinct with properly balanced levels. Dialogue stays easy to follow and is always audible, even when mixed in alongside some sound effects and foley work. There are no noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion to report.
As noted earlier, all of the extras are contained on their own separate disc, starting with Making Barry Lyndon, a brand new documentary that runs just shy of thirty-eight minutes. This piece is made up of cast and crew interviews with Jan Harlan, Brian Cook, Michael Stevenson, Dominic Savage, and Leon Vitali as well excerpts from a 1976 audio interview featuring Kubrick himself. Lots of interesting stories here about what it was like to work on the film, Kubrick as a director, the sets and locations used in the film, the costumes, the source material and loads more. This is a nicely put together featurette that makes good use of clips from the film and some archival stills without overdoing it.
From there we move on to a few more new featurettes starting with Achieving Perfection, a sixteen minute featurette that covers the film's visual style by way of interviews with focus puller Douglas Milsome and gaffer Lou Bogue. Accompanying this newly shot footage are some clips from an interview with cinematographer John Alcott that was shot in 1980. This is a very technically oriented conversation but for those with an interest in camerawork, it's essential. They cover everything from the lenses that they used and why to different shot set ups and quite a bit more. Fascinating stuff! Drama In Detail is another new featurette, this time interviewing film historian Sir Christopher Frayling about production designer Ken Adam's contributions to the picture for fourteen minutes. Here Frayling explains the importance of what Adam was able to bring to the film and why it made such a difference. He also details other career highlights aside from his work on Barry Lyndon. In the fourteen minute long Timing And Tension we get a new interview with editor Tony Lawson wherein he speaks cutting the film in conjunction with Kubrick, the difficulties involved in this process and how tough it could be to get exactly what the director wanted out of the many different takes that were shot for various scenes. Passion And Reason is an exclusive eighteen minute long interview with film critic Michel Ciment that features discussion of the importance of this picture in Kubrick's filmography, Ciment's personal feelings and appreciation for this particular film and his thoughts on other pictures made by the storied director. A Cinematic Canvas allows art curator Adam Eaker to speak for fifteen minutes about the influence of various art pieces, paintings in particular on the picture and its visual style. Balancing Every Sound gets actor Leon Vitali in front of the camera to discuss the 5.1 surround sound mix which he co-supervised for this release for ten minutes.
Criterion also include an archival piece in the form of the five minute On The Costumes which is an interview from a French television broadcast in 1976 with Ulla-Britt Söderlund who served as one of the costume designers on the production.
Rounding out the extras on the disc are two theatrical trailers for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Included inside the keepcase alongside the two Blu-ray discs is an insert booklet that contains technical information on the release, credits for the feature, an essay from film critic Geoffrey O'Brien, a second essay by Ed DiGiulio and two pieces that cover the film's distinct visual style taken from a March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer magazine.
The Criterion Collection's two disc Blu-ray special edition release of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is an excellent release of an excellent film. The presentation is perfect and the extras both extensive and interesting. Really, there's nothing to complain about here. This one handily earns the coveted DVD Talk Collector Series rating!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.