Barry Lyndon (Criterion Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Oct 24, 2017
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Barry Lyndon (Criterion Blu-ray Review)

Director

Stanley Kubrick

Release Date(s)

1975 (October 17, 2017)

Studio(s)

Warner Bros. (Criterion – Spine #897)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: A

Barry Lyndon (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

Barry Lyndon is an unlikely film. It’s unlikely, because most such epics use a much wider canvas and more vivid cinematography – think Spartacus, which was also directed by Stanley Kubrick. But Spartacus was not typical of Kubrick’s style. Barry Lyndon is, thus making it an unusual film by Hollywood standards.

Barry Lyndon is the story of a man’s life – at least the most important parts of it – the rise and fall of an 18th century Irish scoundrel, named Redmond Barry. Barry (played by Ryan O’Neal) starts the film a mere boy, who is in love with his cousin. When she attracts the affections of a British gentleman and soldier, Barry is hot with jealousy. He challenges his cousin’s suitor to a pistol duel, and finds no reward in winning it. Murder is murder, and so Barry is forced to flee his home to escape the law. Before long, he finds himself enlisting in the British army and fighting against the French in the Seven Years War. But, as with many things in his life, Barry finds this situation not to his liking, and takes the first opportunity to desert his post in search of better things. Over time, he takes advantage of a number of unlikely twists of fate – and his uncanny ability to lie, cheat, and steal his way out of difficult situations – eventually climbing into the highest levels of society. But as Barry eventually learns, what fate gives, it can also take away.

Barry Lyndon is a fascinating film from start to finish. Kubrick and O’Neal have crafted a central character that is very hard to like, and yet you can’t quite dislike him either. Raymond Barry is brooding and crafty. Much of what he does is downright despicable – taking advantage of even those who would love him to make himself more comfortable in life. But he shows genuine feelings for others too, especially his own son later in the story. You can’t quite help but think that, had Barry had better role models in his life (he grew up fatherless) and a few more friends (his only real friend dies early in the story), he might have turned out differently. Still, this is a rare film that dares you to embrace a deeply-flawed character and is a more rewarding experience for doing so.

Its look is unusual too. Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott developed a special process for shooting film in natural settings, using lenses originally developed for NASA deep space photography in low light. The result is a very subdued but organic look, which lends a rich atmosphere to the narrative. Very little depth of field is apparent – the image looks flattened by design. It’s as if you’re looking at an elaborate, live-action Victorian painting. There’s also very little warmth found here, from the overcast skies of battlefields to the ornate, but emotionally-barren, chambers and corridors of high society. The effect is to visually reinforce an aspect of Barry’s character that we begin to realize as the story unfolds. But for brief moments, Barry is never truly happy, no matter where he is, what he has, or what he does. His is a restless soul, with no place to call home.

Criterion presents this film on Blu-ray via a new 4K digital scan and restoration of the 35 mm camera negative. Interestingly, the film is presented here in its original 1.66:1 photographed aspect ratio, which results in slight black bars on either side of the 1.78:1 HD display frame. This is a reversal of the decision made by the Kubrick estate for Warner’s 2011 Blu-ray edition (reviewed here), which featured the film in a 1.78:1 ratio that the estate’s Jan Harlan and Leon Vitali then believed Kubrick would have preferred a decision that was a bit controversial among film enthusiasts at the time. In any case, you can be sure here that you’re seeing every bit of the frame that Kubrick intended. And what a gorgeous frame it is! Barry Lyndon is remarkable for its luminous imagery, which has an optically soft quality meant to recall the paintings produced during the period of the film’s story. Yet every bit of fine detail and texture is readily apparent. The colors are not quite lush, but are highly refined and nuanced compared to previous transfers, and they’re always accurate. There’s light grain, but not a hint of artificial scrubbing or other digital enhancement. Barry Lyndon, quite simply, looks better here than it ever has before on disc. For this particular film, the 1080p image is reference quality and is very pleasing to the eye.

The film’s sound is included in the same English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix found on the 2011 Blu-ray, carefully remixed and remastered then preserve the soundtrack’s original mono tonal quality, while adding more ambience, particularly with the music and certain sound effects (the rapport of gunfire, for example). The soundstage is somewhat wider up front, while dialogue takes on a smoother, more natural flavor. Completists will appreciate the fact that the original LPCM mono mix is also included, along with optional English subtitles.

The best news here is that Criterion has, at long last, created the proper Blu-ray special edition that Barry Lyndon has always deserved. This is a feast for Kubrick fans, including new interviews with many of the director’s longtime collaborators, unseen vintage material, and even rare audio clips of Kubrick himself talking about his work. All of the extras are offered on Disc Two of this set, which is also a BD disc. They include (all in HD):

  • Making “Barry Lyndon” (37:52)
  • Achieving Perfection (15:32)
  • Timing and Tension (13:50)
  • Drama in Detail (13:34)
  • Balancing Every Sound (10:13)
  • On the Costumes (5:00)
  • Passion and Reason (17:35)
  • A Cinematic Canvas (15:04)
  • Trailers (2 trailers – 6:16 in all)

In addition to retrospective comments on the film and the production there’s an examination of the technical cinematic achievement of this film, its masterful production design resulting from Kubrick’s collaboration with the great Ken Adams, and an insightful analysis of Kubrick’s cinematic voice and approach, as represented in Barry Lyndon, by the French critic and author Michel Ciment. There’s even a look at the original 18th Century painters whose work proved a great inspiration for the film. The result is a wonderful immersion in Kubrick’s craft and method. The edition is capped by a fine booklet of liner notes that includes an essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brian and two pieces on the film from the March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer.

Barry Lyndon is a masterpiece, unique in the modern cinema still, and a film that grows in one’s appreciation with each new viewing. Criterion has done real justice with this release in more ways than one. Combined with their previous Blu-rays of Kubrick’s The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Dr. Strangelove, and their DVD of Spartacus, the result is an invaluable resource for cinephiles and fans of the director. One certainly hopes that 2001: A Space Odyssey is next on Criterion’s agenda. In the meantime, this is a must-have Blu-ray release.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

 

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