Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) is a key 18th-century costume movie for a lot of people, both costumers and film geeks. And, I have put it off for YEARS. Not because it doesn’t look visually very appealing, but because I had been warned that it is SLOW and LONG. I can have a really hard time with art films that don’t really go anywhere and take their time while they’re doing it, so while I would always say, “I need to watch it, I know!” I somehow never quite got around to it. Enter The Quest — to see as many 18th-century costume movies I can get my hands on — and I was in the mood to be a slug on the couch, so it was time to watch Barry Lyndon. The film geek husband was very impressed. So now, I offer you my Barry Lyndon costume movie review!
It’s actually quite good, so long as you’re in the mood for SLOW and LONG. I had to watch it over two nights. The plot isn’t actually as plotless as I’d been led to believe — things definitely happen! But they happen at a slow, languorous pace. In fact, some of the events in the movie could be quite exciting, but Kubrick films them all at a very stately pace, with long, lingering shots. So I was pleasantly surprised to have Things Happen! But, yeah, that pace is very stately, so much so that I can’t imagine I’d want to watch it again. And, it’s not a movie you’d want to have on while you’re sewing, because it’s really all about the visuals…
First, I was wondering why Kubrick would want to make this movie, given 2001, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, etc. It turns out that he had been planning to make a film about Napoleon and had done a ton of research, but another film on the topic was released right as he was going to get going (Waterloo), and this other film flopped. So Kubrick wanted a way to use all that research. He turned to a novel published by Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair) in 1844.
The story tells the “life” of fictional Barry Lyndon, a poor-ish Irish young man who (spoilers! highlight for my one sentence synopsis) gets his heart broken, joins the British army, goes AWOL, gets commandeered into the Prussian army, befriends a Prussian officer, becomes a spy, becomes a card shark, marries an English noble, gets really depraved, and ends up with nothing.
The costumes were designed by Milena Canonero (Marie Antoinette 2006, The Affair of the Necklace) and Ulla-Britt Söderlund (a Swedish designer who mostly worked on productions from that country), and they won the Academy Award that year for best costume design. The team working on the hair included then-celebrity hairstylist Leonard of Mayfair.
The first half of the movie is pretty boy-centric, with lots of military uniforms that looked fine to me (I’m sure the military reenactors could tell us if they got anything wrong). Once Barry meets Lady Lyndon, we get a whole lot of nice 1780s dresses and HUGE hair, mostly on her. I really liked the costumes, although a few of Lady Lyndon’s dresses seemed a little skimpy. Lady Lyndon’s hair was gorgeously huge and 1780s appropriate, except in one scene where she randomly wears a late 1770s high style. The men’s hair was very good, except for a few too many layered cuts in the front part of the hair. Note to costume designers: 18th c. men’s hair is NOT a modern layered cut with a long tail or a mullet. Yes, the front hair usually was cut shorter, but it’s not a modern layered cut.
I didn’t LOVE Ryan O’Neal as Barry, although not for any real reason other than he reads very American to me. He certainly did a passable Irish accent, and I’m sure back in the day he was a box-office draw, but now he just seems so cornfed.
The Verdict on Barry Lyndon
Definitely see it once, but once is enough — unless it’s been a long time.