Stanley Kubrick “always admitted he took too long to make Barry Lyndon,” former Kubrick assistant Leon Vitali tells The Reeler’s Jamie Stuart. “There was about a year of pre-production, a year-plus of shooting, then he took an awful long time to edit. And by the time it was ready to come out, I would say, the blockbuster action movies had become de rigeur. That was what the people really wanted to see. So when this film came out it was received as strange, slow, completely out of context to what was going on.
“And I think people were expecting something a little closer to A Clockwork Orange, which, of course had caused such a furor. It was living! A Clockwork Orange was playing for over a year in London. And Barry Lyndon was trashed by many critics, equally so in the UK. That really hurt Stanley a lot. He was very depressed about it. Very upset about it. He took it to heart.
“It took a long, long time really before…I can tell you exactly when it was… It was in the early ’90s. The BBC ran a series of his films on television. It was all the films from Lolita, Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork, Barry Lyndon, The Shining …The Radio Times, which is like a TV Guide, but more of a magazine, I suppose — they gave each film a critical breakdown. Well, they gave Barry Lyndon five stars, because they believed that was the true Odyssey film: you start with someone who’s lowdown; he travels all the way around Europe; gets himself into the upper-echelons of the British aristocracy; then there’s a slow decline back to where he came from. It’s a classic Odyssey story.
“They gave it five stars and all the other films got four stars, but perfect critiques. And they said if it hadn’t been for the fact that wBarry Lyndon was playing along with these other films, they would have given all those films five stars. I realized there’d been a real turning point, especially toward the end of Stanley’s life, where we were getting feedback from a lot of critics that suddenly said: ‘I’ve just seen Barry Lyndon again and I did not realize at the time what a wonderful film it was.’ They went so lyrical about it.”
I — not Stuart, not Vitali — have seen Barry Lyndon at least fifteen times. Possibly a bit more than that –I’ve lost count but who counts and who cares? It’s brilliant, mesmerizing, exquisite — a dry, note-perfect immersion into the climate and mores of William Makepeace Thackeray‘s novel, and, by its own terms, one of the most perfectly realized films ever made. But the problem — and this needs to be said (or re-said) with all this passionate but vaguely snobby Lyndon gushing going on — is that it turns sour at a very particular point. And, in my eyes, it is just a notch below great because of the dead zone section in the second half.
I’m speaking of the moment when Barry (Ryan O’Neal) blows pipe smoke into the face of his wife, Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Something happens at that moment, and from then on it’s “oh, odd…the energy is dropping, and I’m starting to enjoy this less.” For another 30 to 40 minutes (or what feels like that amount of time), Barry Lyndon gets slower and slower — it becomes more and more about stately compositions and dispassionate observation.
Then, finally, comes the duel with Lord Bullington (Vitale) and Barry gets his groove back. Then that perfect, dialogue-free scene with Lady Lyndon signing checks with Bullington and Reverent Runt at her side, and she signs the annual payment to her ex-husband. And finally, that perfect epilogue.
There’s one other draggy component that diminishes Barry Lyndon, and in fact makes the dead-zone portion even deader than it needs to be, and that’s Berenson’s performance. Even now, the mere thought of her glacial expression — there’s only one — in that film makes me tighten with irritation.