An Irish rogue uses his cunning and wit to work his way up the social classes of 18th century England, transforming himself from the humble Redmond Barry into the noble Barry Lyndon.
Kubrick has a made a film about the ability for a piece of cinema to inhabit one mode, the author [Thackeray] to inhabit another, while at the same time outlining the necessity for viewers to deconstruct what these perspectives infer without being told. In this sense, Kubrick champions a call for sophisticated viewing in Barry Lyndon.
In the first scene of Barry Lyndon, where Barry’s father dies in a duel when Barry was just a boy, Kubrick establishes the theme of absent fathers. Barry’s ongoing search for a father-figure becomes one of the film’s most prominent underlying themes in the first half, even if in results in a procession of disappointments and failures. […] A recurring visual motif finds the camera pulling back from a single point in a tight frame to reveal all of the scholarly historical detail Kubrick and his crew have incorporated into the shot. Close-ups for their own sake are rare in Barry Lyndon, since they would presuppose the importance of the given character.
— Brian Eggert (Deep Focus Review)
Barry Lyndon was in production for over two years, and to a large degree, the reception it received in December 1975 anticipated that accorded the unfinished Eyes Wide Shut. The ever perverse Kubrick had adapted an unknown literary classic, stocked it with celebrity stars, and worked in well-publicized secrecy over an extended period of time under security so tight his studio barely knew what he was doing (and, in any case, wouldn’t see it until three weeks before release). Heralded by a worshipful Time cover story, the movie received notices ranging from the ecstatic to the brutally dismissive. […] Barry Lyndon was born anomalous. In 1976, Harold Rosenberg damned it with faint praise, suggesting that the movies might make their “maximum contribution to culture” by following Kubrick’s lead in “recycling unread literature.” Of course, after a decade of adaptations from Jane Austen, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy, Kubrick’s oddest project seems 20 years ahead of its time. Barry Lyndon is the movie Miramax would most want to release, albeit polished by Tom Stoppard and cut by 90 minutes.
— J. Hoberman (Village Voice)
The music moves with its own sense of purpose, sometimes underscoring, sometimes contradicting what we see. […] There is in Barry Lyndon a parallel film made up of music, landscape, color, and compositional harmony that unfolds concurrently with the narrative of Barry’s life, evoking the many possibilities that might be imagined by the characters themselves but that have little chance of ever being realized.
— Geoffrey O’Brien (Criterion)
The detached irony of the narration subtly tweaks the conventions of the historical epic right from the start, highlighting the absurdity of the duel where Barry’s father dies, an early foreshadowing of Barry’s own future fate. Soon after, Kubrick further announces his sense of humor when, during a scene of Barry and his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) silently, sullenly playing cards, the narrator drolly intones, “First love, what a change it makes in a lad.” It’s a joke worthy of Woody Allen, introducing a wryly ironic disconnect between words and images that makes the film complex, satirical and multilayered more than simple or elemental—especially when it later becomes clear just what changes this love will cause in Barry’s life.
Barry is a paragon of self-deception, and at the heart of this deception is a popular democratic ideal that he’s fully internalized, the idea of class mobility. Barry, for all his faults and follies, is a real believer in the possibility of advancement; he’s an American-style social striver in an earlier era and another continent, who thinks that he can force himself upwards from poverty and ruin to the highest strata of society. In that sense, Barry isn’t just a fool or a villain—he’s also a victim. A victim, primarily, of a social structure in which his ambitions and his ideals would be impossible to realize even if he had gone about things in a more intelligent manner. Kubrick isn’t just crafting a portrait of a fool, which would be all too easy. He’s suggesting that Barry’s particular brand of foolishness is a symptom of a society that restricts the opportunities of the lower classes at every opportunity.
O’Neal’s character is the focal point of nearly every scene in a lengthy film that even by title alone announces itself as a one-man character study, and yet O’Neal’s Barry doesn’t dominate our consciousness as a distinct character. […] Indeed, Barry often feels like the supporting player in his own film. Opposite Nora, Quin, Potzdorf, his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) and so on, our attention is repeatedly drawn to those opposite him.
Duels as presented by Kubrick are not so much showcases for honor and nobility but evidence of fragile egos forced by convention to respond to even the slightest of imagined insults.
— Ed Howard (Slant Magazine)
Whereas Terrence Malick, another fan of shooting in natural light, spends a considerable amount of time in the magic hour, and Wong Kar-wai has a penchant for deeply saturated images and Yasujio Ozu’s films are rigidly composed, Barry Lyndon doesn’t exist in quite the same state of heightened reality. It’s an anachronistically clean period piece (as so many are), one in which the costumes always seem freshly cleaned and pressed, as if mud and wrinkles didn’t exist in the 18th century. But beyond that, the visual allure feels surprisingly organic, as if Kubrick has discovered a world where, day or night, indoors or out, at play or at war, exquisite beauty is inescapable.
It’s often argued that filmmakers should strive to “show not tell” the thoughts and emotions of their characters, but Barry Lyndon is a film that finds a happy marriage doing both. The narration never serves as a replacement for portrayal, it simply enhances it, allowing Kubrick to impart great emotional depth into scenes that, due to the story’s broad and episodic nature, often have very little opportunity for physical build-up.
— Jason Bellamy (Slant Magazine)
It's difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character. He loses a fortune, a wife or a leg with as little emotion as he might in losing a dog. Only the death of his son devastates him and that perhaps because he sees himself in the boy. […] The film has the arrogance of genius[:] [Barry] has the confidence of the great 19th century novelists, authors who stood above their material and accepted without question their right to manipulate and interpret it with omniscience. Kubrick has appropriated Thackeray's attitude — or Trollope's or George Eliot's. There isn't Dickens' humor or relish of human character. Barry Lyndon, falling in and out of love and success, may see no pattern in his own affairs, but [Kubrick] sees one for him.