What does Stanley Kubrick, William Makepeace Thackeray and an entire wardrobe of feathery, embellished hats have in common? The answer, of course, is the Oscar and BAFTA studded period drama that is Barry Lyndon (originally released in 1975), which is being re-released by the BFI in cinemas across the UK.
Barry Lyndon is the story of a young, troubled Irish man in the 18th Century who, after embarrassing his family, sets out to make his own fortune. After a number of misadventures — including being robbed by highway men, ending up in the Prussian army and becoming a spy — the then Redmond Barry happens upon the Countess of Lyndon, a young, beautiful and very wealthy woman with a conveniently old and sickly husband. Seeing a chance to elevate his prospects, Barry marries the widow shortly after her husband’s death. However, despite the novel’s title — upon which the film is based — entitled The Luck of Barry Lyndon, the protagonist’s rapid rise to fortune is only destined for similarly dramatic fall from grace; haunted by his lowly beginnings and his uneasy relationship with stepson, Lord Bullingdon, the true heir to the Lyndon estate. With such a great height to fall from, the only thing that remains to be seen is just how far Barry will drop and whether he can cling onto anything he has attained on his way down.
Referred to by author Thackeray as a ‘novel without a hero’ the story is navigated by the audiences meandering feelings towards protagonist, moving in the same way as Lyndon does through the various mishaps of the tale. The audience at once feels both sorry for his naivety and innocence but repulsed by his unwavering desire for fame and glory. As with many of Kubrick’s films (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) the film was initially met with a mixed reception, as critics praised the film for its visual beauty but were less enamoured by its length (184 minutes) and its cold, third person retelling; as the original novel was written in first person. However, in later years, the film has achieved cult status as a masterpiece, ranking in the top 100 films ever made by TIME magazine, and attaining a near perfect score on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes.
It is easy to understand why. In order to understand what I mean, you can either take my word for it or experience it for yourself at the cinema: the only setting large enough to truly appreciate the stunning visuals in the film. Inspired by the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth, cinematographer John Alcott — who won an Oscar for his work on the film — captures scenes that look as though they are themselves the source of an 18th Century painting. From gorgeous landscapes of Ireland, England and Germany to the dining rooms lit only by candlelight, each scene is intensely beautiful in its framing, making the film a treat for the eyes as well as for the mind.
The BAFTA and Oscar winning film is to be released at cinemas across the UK on 29th July 2016 as part of a long-running partnership with Warner Bros. It is being released in conjunction with an original exhibition at Somerset House, entitled Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, in which artists, filmmakers and musicians will showcase work inspired by and celebrating the magic of Stanley Kubrick. ∎