After the success of A Clockwork Orange
(1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968), and Dr Strangelove
(1964), Stanley Kubrick went in yet another direction with this fastidiously-mounted and lengthy costume drama based on the William Makepeace Thackery novel of the same name. The film flopped, for many reasons but at least because unlike those films there was little that audience could identify with. The title character is an unsympathetic character and from the outset as a callow young fool to his end as a one-legged pariah Kubrick simply observes his history with imperturbable detachment. .
The fresh-faced but incongruously mild-mannered and inert Ryan O'Neal, in what was effectively his last major role, is certainly an against-the-grain choice to play the untutored 18th century Irishman, Redmond Barry aka Barry Lyndon (A Clockwork Orange
star Malcolm McDowell would have been a more robust performer but evidently this was not Kubrick’s intention). O'Neal had been a pin-up boy since the huge success of Love Story
(1970) but here, despite an initial youthful crush, he is no heartthrob but rather a calculating individual given to an over-weening love of social status. Eschewing both romance and action Kubrick seems more interested in recreating the place and time with meticulous fidelity (clearly he has closely studied contemporary paintings), rather than any dramatic substance, relying instead on Michael Hordern’s narration to connect the pieces of Redmond Barry’s melancholy tale. The result is a visually stunning production in which little happens at an unhurried pace.
The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Whilst its detachment and lack of strong character-driven action deprived it of these, rightly, it won Oscars for its sets, costumes and cinematography and score.
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