The Alien Majesty of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon

A new Criterion Collection release of the 1975 period piece highlights just how unique the director’s vision of the past was.

A still from Stanley Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon'
Warner Bros.

Every time I watch Barry Lyndon, my eye is immediately drawn to the candles. They’re in dozens of scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 classic historical drama, sometimes as the only form of light—a miraculous achievement of cinematography that required special camera lenses borrowed from NASA. With any Kubrick work, there’s a magisterial sense of control and overreach present in every frame, an approach that helped make him the (sometimes clichéd) embodiment of the auteur filmmaker. In Barry Lyndon, that attention to extravagant detail lies in those candles, which can make the most epic manse feel chillingly intimate.

The behind-the-scenes features on the Criterion Collection’s remastered release of Barry Lyndon, out this month, make it clear just what a struggle it was to light scenes with tiny flames. Capturing even a still image with so little illumination is a challenge; using a film camera was much harder, necessitating the use of gigantic lenses developed for NASA’s moon landings. Beyond that, candles themselves are ill-suited to the hermetic environment of a movie set. “[They] would burn down very quickly, people had to refuel every time … and they give off an enormous amount of smoke,” the focus puller Douglas Milsome recalls in a documentary included on the Criterion disc. “You would open all the windows, put the [fans] on, extract all the dirt and dust and the smell, because it eats up oxygen.”

Barry Lyndon is the kind of film that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. There’s a good reason it’s revived with some frequency at major repertory cinemas, sometimes with a live orchestra to replicate its memorable score (which consists entirely of classical pieces, especially Handel’s “Sarabande” from his Keyboard suite in D minor). But the Criterion effort to replicate Barry Lyndon’s cinematic impact is impressive. The Blu-ray has a similarly hypnotic impact at home as it does in the theater, drawing the audience’s focus to the surprising details in the background of each long, stately shot. It’s a movie that actually makes the past look otherworldly, unlike many period pieces, which strive to make history seem easy to slip into.

Based on the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, Kubrick’s film chronicles the rise and fall of an opportunistic 18th-century Irishman who ascends, through a mixture of luck and ambition, to success and nobility and then experiences a similarly dramatic decline. Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is a frustrating, foolish, and often unknowable protagonist, prone to hot-headed and cowardly behavior, capable of both great empathy and callousness for those closest to him.

The character is an unsurprisingly clear-eyed take on the picaresque hero—a man who vaults from a low status into aristocracy but seems to exist only as a vehicle for the audience to witness the general amorality of the elite. Kubrick wants to keep Barry Lyndon at arm’s length: He employs deliberate, majestic shots of battlefield landscapes and sumptuous mansions that zoom farther and farther out, filling in more of the environment around the protagonist while pulling the audience away from him.

When Kubrick picked Barry Lyndon as his next project, the director was at the forefront of futurism, having made 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and A Clockwork Orange in 1971. After these films, Lyndon was an odd choice, a turn back to the historical dramas that had helped make Kubrick’s name (like Paths of Glory and Spartacus). But the 18th-century high society the director depicts is just as unsettling as the austere spaceships of 2001 and the violent dystopia of A Clockwork Orange. The scenery Kubrick conjures is deeply foreign and gorgeous to behold, reminiscent of the giant canvas landscapes of painters like William Hogarth that he used as inspiration.

That feeling of alienation matters because Barry is an interloper wherever he goes, first bouncing through the English and Prussian armies, then becoming a high-stakes gambler in Europe, then marrying into nobility and taking the title of Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). So many of Kubrick’s shots are entrancing in their utter lack of movement, taking in a tableau of people seated for dinner or playing cards, with only their hands in motion. And then there are those magical candles, which help authentically recreate a time about which much has been forgotten. It all adds up to a setting that doesn’t make sense to the modern eye, and is even more engrossing because of it.

Like many a Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon debuted to mixed reviews, with many critics considering it too cold and august for the very personal tale of triumph and tragedy being told. The response was enough to drive Kubrick to choose something more commercial for his next movie: the Stephen King adaptation The Shining, which would come out five years later. But ever since my first viewing, Barry Lyndon has been one of my favorite Kubrick works, a window onto the past that actually tries to wrestle with how intimidating that world should appear to an outsider. If you’ve never seen it, there’s no better time to light a few candles and soak it all in.