Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Release Date(s)1975 (May 31, 2011)
Barry Lyndon is an unlikely epic story. It’s unlikely, because most such epic films use a much wider canvas and more vivid cinematography – think Spartacus, which was also directed by Stanley Kubrick. But Spartacus was not typical of Kubrick’s style. Barry Lyndon is, thus making it an unusual epic film, at least by Hollywood standards.
Barry Lyndon is the story of a man’s life – at least the most important parts of it – the rise and fall of an 18th century Irish scoundrel, named Redmond Barry. Barry (played by Ryan O’Neal) starts the film a mere boy, who is in love with his cousin. When she attracts the affections of a British gentleman and soldier, Barry is hot with jealousy. He challenges his cousin’s suitor to a pistol duel, and finds no reward in winning it. Murder is murder, and Barry is forced to flee his home to escape the law. Before long, Barry finds himself enlisting in the British army and fighting against the French in the Seven Years War. But, as with many things in his life, he finds this situation not to his liking, and takes the first opportunity to desert his post in search of better things. Over time, Barry takes advantage of a number of unlikely twists of fate – and his uncanny ability to lie, cheat and steal his way out of difficult situations – and eventually climbs into the highest levels of society. But as Barry eventually learns, what fate gives, it can also take away.
Barry Lyndon is a fascinating film. Certainly, better such epic tales have been told before and since. And better looking films have also been made. But Barry Lyndon still holds a certain fascination. Kubrick and O’Neal have crafted a central character that it is very hard to like, and yet you can’t quite dislike him either. Raymond Barry is brooding and crafty. Much of what he does is downright despicable – taking advantage of even those who would love him to make himself more comfortable in life. But he shows genuine feelings for others too, especially his own son later in the story. You can’t quite help but think that, had Barry had better role models in his life (he grew up fatherless) and a few more friends (his only real friend dies early in the story), he might have turned out differently. Still, this is a rare film that dares to make you dislike its central character, even a little bit.
Its look is also unusual. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott developed a special process for shooting film in natural light settings. The result is a very subdued but natural look to the film, which creates a cool atmosphere for the story. Very little depth of field is apparent – the image looks flattened by design. It’s as if you’re looking at an elaborate, live-action Victorian painting. There’s also very little visual warmth found here, from the overcast skies of battlefields to the ornate, but emotionally-barren, chambers and corridors of high society. The effect is to visually reinforce an aspect of Barry’s character that we begin to realize as the story unfolds – Barry is never truly happy, no matter where he is, what he has or what he does. His is a restless soul, with no place to call home.
Warner originally released this film on DVD back in 1999 and then again in 2001 with a remastered transfer. The A/V quality of the original DVD was disappointing, though the remaster was somewhat better. Barry Lyndon has been a long time coming on Blu-ray Disc, but finally Warner has given the film its due in high-definition with a new and truly worthy HD master. Presented in widescreen at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the image is nuanced and lovely. [Editor’s Note: The previous DVD was presented at 1.66:1, but the Kubrick estate has now decided that the film’s originally intended aspect ratio was 1.77, so the film appears at 1.78 on Blu-ray. See this interview with Leon Vitali from 5/25/11 on the matter, as well as the aspect ratio clarification below, which is reproduced from Taschen’s 2004 The Stanley Kubrick Archives book. Be aware that the disc’s packaging notes the aspect ratio as 1.85 – this is an error. It’s confirmed 1.78.] Remember, this film has a glowing softness to it by design, yet all the clarity and detail Kubrick intended is readily apparent here. The colors were never meant to look lush, but they’re vibrant compared to the previous DVD transfers, and they’re always accurate. There’s light grain, but not a hint of artificial scrubbing or other digital enhancement. The image is not quite reference quality, but it’s as good as this film has ever looked and is very pleasing to the eye. Audio is included in remastered 5.1 DTS-HD MA in English, with standard Dolby Digital tracks in French and Spanish. Though its 5.1, the mix accurately represents the soundtrack’s original mono tonal quality, but adds more ambience, particularly with the music and certain sound effects (the rapport of gunfire, for example). The soundstage is somewhat wider up front, while dialogue takes on a smoother, more natural flavor. Subtitles include English SDH, French and Spanish.
Like the original DVDs, the only extra included on the Blu-ray is the film’s theatrical trailer in widescreen. It’s very soft and certainly looks its age, but Kubrick trailers are always unique and it’s cool to have it on here. This also means you can safely sell your previous DVD copies with no fear of losing any content.
Barry Lyndon has long deserved a better A/V presentation on disc, and Warner’s new Blu-ray finally offers it. Yes... the film also deserves a true special edition. It celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015, so it’s not hard to imagine Warner adding the appropriate bells and whistles then. Meanwhile, when you consider that this disc is available for just $13.99 on Amazon (as an Amazon exclusive) is hard to get too worked up about it. (Note that the disc is also available as part of Warner’s new Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection on Blu-ray.) For most Kubrick fans, picking up this disc should be a no-brainer.
- Bill Hunt