Barry Lyndon

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Warner, widescreen 1.66:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], French Digital Mono, subtitles: English, French, single side-dual layer, 47 chapters, theatrical trailer, production notes, rated PG, 185 min., $24.98, street date 6/29/99.

Studio Line

Academy Awards: Winner of Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, 1976.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Steven Berkoff, Gay Hamilton.

How does an Irish lad without prospect (Ryan O'Neal) become part of 18th-century English nobility? Any deceitful, diabolical way he can! An awesomely beautiful, hauntingly romantic adaptation of the classic book with a texture and feel unlike any other historical movie ever made.

Picture/Sound/Extras (C-/C+/D-)

Sometimes I really wonder about movie critics. On this DVD, we see a theatrical trailer for Barry Lyndon in which quotes from noted reviewers of the era gush about the high quality of the picture. While I don't really disagree with their positive assessments of the film, I still can't help but wonder if they watched the same movie I just saw.

The remarks that puzzled me involved statements about the film's lushness and its "magical" qualities. I also heard Ryan O'Neal's title character called a "likable rake."

In truth, Lyndon is more a ho than a rake. The character displays many facets, but charming or likable aren't really among them. In truth, Lyndon's a rather nasty guy, a person who clearly cares not for anything other than his own advancement and material success.

Interestingly, O'Neal offers a pretty bad performance as Lyndon but ends up accurately portraying the character. O'Neal seems stiff, wooden and flat, but in reality, that's probably the way Lyndon should appear. Lyndon seemed to be a virtual cipher, a fairly dull-witted guy with few obvious talents who got by on his good looks. Hmm - sound like any actor you can recall? I don't know if O'Neal actually tried to play Lyndon as such a dud, but it works spectacularly well.

As for the other critical statements, well, I can understand them more than the "likable" bit, but they still seem inappropriate. One calls BL a "gorgeous dream of life." Huh? As happens with many other Kubrick films, the movie depicts a rather bleak, cynical view of humanity, with unhappy or selfish characters dominant. While some of the settings indeed seem lovely, the goings on are not as pleasant. Although BL is a period piece, this isn't one of those lush romantic epics; it's the least sentimental and warm-spirited film of its sort I've seen.

Kubrick always seemed to be a rather objective filmmaker who rarely put a slant on the action in his films; he shows what he shows and leaves it up to the viewer to form an opinion. While this makes his movies much more open to interpretation than most - which is why I suppose I can't completely discount the apparently odd viewpoints of the critics - it also makes the films appear colder and harsher than most. BL completely lacks any sense of romance or warmth, and we develop little (if any) affection for the characters. Marisa Berenson's Lady Lyndon elicits sympathy, but that sentiment seems tinged with pity, as even she lacks much cause to provoke a positive reaction from the audience; she appears such a fool to have joined with Barry that I didn't feel terribly bad for her plight.

Despite the coldness and objectivity of his work, Kubrick often seemed something of a moralist, as the theme of "you shall reap what you sow" appears frequently in his films. BL is no exception. Barry does unto others in a less-than-positive way and thus they do unto him. Rarely do Kubrick characters escape unscathed from their negative dealings.

Getting back to the critical statements, I think many descriptions of the film did miss the point. Some folks seemed caught up in lavish sets and costumes and ignore that BL is a surprisingly personal "epic." I put that last word in quotes because although the action spans many years and settings, BL seems like an anti-epic to me. That kind of film pours on the spectacle and creates a big statement. BL, on the other hand, sticks close to the sordid tale of a seedy man. It lacks the outsize nature of an epic, despite whatever other characteristics it may share.

BL is a film I admire but I'm not sure how much I like it. To be frank, I think that fits with Kubrick's technique in the long run; he didn't make very likable films. They were technically proficient and well-executed but left little for the audience to find charming or endearing or uplifting. This isn't a knock on Kubrick; I certainly feel that films should not restrict their scope to "feelgood" sagas. As such, I found Barry Lyndon to be a fairly compelling movie that certainly achieves its goals; while it doesn't enthuse me, I feel it's definitely one of Kubrick's better films.

Barry Lyndon appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; because of its mild letterboxing, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture offers a fairly high number of faults and seems plagued with inconsistencies, it ultimately looks decent and appears largely watchable.

For reasons unknown, the second half of the film looks substantially better than the first. As such, most of the issues involve the first 90 minutes of the movie; these problems occur during the second half as well, but not to nearly the same degree. Sharpness seems consistently good, with only mild, stylized softness occasionally entering the picture. Unfortunately, this decently crisp image comes with a negative price: some badly overenhanced edges. I noticed quite a lot of shimmering and jagged edges during the movie. Trees cause the most damage; one early scene in a forest appears very unstable. Other images occasionally seem to have "halos" around them because of the excessive sharpness. Still, I found the picture to largely appear decent in this regard, although the moire effects certainly could be distracting.

Strangely, in a reverse of the usual appearance, indoor scenes look better than outdoor shots. Normally daylight segments appear best because of all the light, whereas interior shots run into trouble because of the dim conditions. Here, the exteriors tend to seem most flawed, perhaps because the extra light reveals the flaws more easily. It's also possible that Kubrick took more care with the interiors, though; even the lowest light conditions - such as the scenes that appear to use only candlelight - suffer from little to no grain, whereas outside shots often seem quite grainy.

In addition to the occasional bouts of grain, the print used for the transfer displays a myriad of other flaws. Scratches, marks, spots and speckles appear fairly regularly, especially during the first half of the movie; they're there during the second part, but not to as substantial a degree.

Colors seem somewhat muted but are pleasing and fairly accurate. Black levels looked quite good, and I saw no problems with shadow detail; again, despite the frequent use of little light, all parts of the image appeared viewable and easily discerned. I won't kid you and tell you that "Barry Lyndon" offers a great visual experience; the DVD contains far too many flaws for that. Nonetheless, despite its inconsistencies, I found it to be watchable, with an appearance that often seems very good; only some substantial faults drop it to a level of mediocrity.

Barry Lyndon features a Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound mix that seems well-reproduced. Although the audio appears fairly flat and dull most of the time, all portions of it seem clear and lack distortion. Dialogue appeared clean and easily intelligible at all times. Some additional life to the mix would have been nice - the high end seems bland - but for a 25-year-old mono track, it's pretty good.

Less appealing are the supplemental features. We get the theatrical trailer I mentioned earlier in the review, and we also see a listing of awards Barry Lyndon won or for which it was nominated. Maybe someday Kubrick films will appear in legitimate special editions on DVD, but I'm not holding my breath.

As with most of the DVD issues of Kubrick movies, I feel I can't really recommend Barry Lyndon. It's a strongly compelling and interesting film, but the DVD just doesn't get the job done. The sound is probably as good as it will get, but the picture lacks consistent quality and the supplements are negligible. It's a shame that a legendary filmmaker's work has been presented so poorly.

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