Sometimes I really wonder about movie critics. On this DVD, we find a theatrical trailer for Barry Lyndon that features quotes from noted reviewers of the era as they gush about the high quality of the picture. While I don't strongly disagree with their positive assessments of the film, I still can't help but wonder if they watched the same movie I 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 man displays many characteristics, but “charming” or “likable” aren't among them. In truth, Lyndon's a rather nasty guy, a person who clearly cares little 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 in which unhappy or selfish characters dominate. While some of the settings indeed seem lovely, the goings-on are not very pleasant. Although BL is a period piece, don’t expect one of those lush romantic epics; it was 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 showed what he showed and left it up to the viewer to form an opinion. While this made his movies much more open to interpretation than most - which is why I can't completely discount the odd viewpoints of the critics - it also made the films appear rather cold and harsh. BL completely lacked any sense of romance or warmth, and I developed little affection for the characters. Marisa Berenson's Lady Lyndon elicited sympathy, but that sentiment seemed tinged with pity, as even she failed to provoke a positive reaction; she appeared like such a fool to have joined with Barry that I didn't feel terribly bad for her plight.
Despite the iciness and impartiality of his work, Kubrick often seemed like something of a moralist, as the theme of "you shall reap what you sow" appeared frequently in his films. BL was no exception. Barry does unto others in a less-than-positive way and thus they do unto him. Rarely will Kubrick characters escape unscathed from their negative dealings.
Getting back to the critical statements, I think many of these descriptions of the film really missed the point. Some folks seemed caught up in lavish sets and costumes and ignored the fact that BL was a surprisingly personal "epic." I put that last word in quotes because although the action spans many years and settings, BL seemed like an anti-epic to me. The typical epic pours on the spectacle and creates a big statement; look to flicks like Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told for prime examples. BL, on the other hand, stuck close to the sordid tale of a seedy man. It lacked the outsize nature of an epic, despite whatever other characteristics it may share.
BL was a film I admired but I'm not sure how much I liked it. To be frank, I think that interpretation 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 achieved its goals; while it didn't enthuse me, I felt it was definitely one of Kubrick's better films.
One piece of trivia: at one point during Lyndon, we hear mention of an artist named “Ludovico Cordi”. I thought this name sounded familiar, and I quickly realized that Kubrick was slyly referring back to part of A Clockwork Orange; in that film, Alex’s treatment came through the “Ludovico Method”.
Barry Lyndon appears in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As was the case with the discs for Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, this lack of an anamorphic picture was a mild disappointment, but since the movie itself provided a terrific image, I won’t cry too much.
Many regarded the old DVD as the worst of the 1999 Kubrick collection, but I didn’t agree. Oh, it was definitely a mess, especially during its first half. Nonetheless, even with a myriad of concerns, I thought it looked a little better than did the old Clockwork and old Shining, both of which were absolutely atrocious. It was a minor distinction between these three, however, as all of them looked pretty bad.
On this new DVD, I saw stunning improvements in picture quality. Put simply, this was an absolutely stellar transfer. Lyndon featured a luminescent and mildly gauzy style throughout the film. Kubrick apparently used no artificial means to light any scenes, which meant that natural light and candles comprised all of the sources. Along with the semi-romantic glowing tone given to the film, these decisions could have been a recipe for disaster, but they showed no ill effects. Sharpness looked consistently excellent, as the entire movie appeared crisp and well-defined. Despite the vaguely soft look featured throughout the flick, I saw no fuzzy or indistinct images. Lyndon seemed detailed and precise at all times.
The movie featured virtually no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges, and it also lacked almost all forms of print flaws. A smidgen of grain appeared on a couple of occasions, and I detected one or two examples of grit, but that was it. Lyndon provided a wonderfully clean and fresh image at all times.
Within the constraints of the film’s radiant stylization, Lyndon featured colors that were fairly subdued. However, that shouldn’t be construed as a complaint, for I found the hues of Lyndon to appear quite attractive. The movie showed a nicely natural palette that always seemed clean and concise. Red tones were vivid and rich, while the many greens of the outdoor segments looked accurate and lifelike. The various colors didn’t appear “eye-popping”, but then again, they shouldn’t offer stunning brightness. The hues were intended to seem soft and gentle, and the DVD reproduced them well.
Black levels appeared nicely deep and dark at all times, as these tones seemed very dense and solid. Shadow detail was simply outstanding. Because the film lacked artificial lighting, it offered many dim scenes; in particular, nighttime interiors provided particular challenges, since they were illuminated only by candlepower. Nonetheless, the image always appeared appropriately visible, with no excessive opacity on display. Ultimately, I thought this new DVD of Barry Lyndon offered an absolutely gorgeous picture that totally blew away the old one.
Additional improvements could be found through the new Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Barry Lyndon. The old DVD featured the original monaural mix, and it wasn’t bad for its age. However, the new track provided a substantially more vivid and lively experience.
Purists need not worry that the audio engineers went crazy with this remix. For the most part, the soundfield appeared fairly subdued, as most of the film essentially remained monaural. Effects spread nicely to the sides on occasion, and they created a pretty decent ambient environment. Localization of a few elements seemed positive, and the effects panned neatly at times. For example, a cart might travel from one side to the other, and the mix made this seem natural.
Various kinds of battles offered the best opportunities for activity. Though they never became too showy, military scenes and duels provided some nice spread to the side channels. I particularly liked one sword contest, in which the swishes of the blades flittered cleanly in their appropriate locations. War scenes also created good placement of sounds, and they became mildly engrossing.
Nonetheless, most of the effects remained centralized, and the film’s music featured the strongest stereo elements. The score was blended quite nicely across the front speakers, as the various elements were well-defined and neatly placed. The music also moved nicely into the rears, as the score was the main component heard in the surrounds. Some effects also cropped up back there at times - particularly during the louder battles - but for the most part, rear usage was limited to pleasant reinforcement of the music. The new mix of Lyndon created a nicely smooth and clean environment that seemed satisfying.
Also very positive was the quality of the audio. Speech seemed surprisingly warm and natural throughout the film. Even during excellent remixed soundtracks like the DTS affair made for Jaws, dialogue stems often showed the film’s age. That wasn’t the case for Lyndon, as I felt the speech appeared fairly natural and vivid; the lines weren’t quite as distinct as they’d be for a more modern film, but given the movie’s vintage, I was very impressed by their warmth. Lines demonstrated no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility.
Effects also seemed surprisingly clean and distinct, though they seemed a little more problematic than did the speech. For the most part, the various elements sounded accurate and realistic, but some thin tones affected a few aspects of the track. Gunfire and cannon shots came across as a little hollow and processed, and though the bass tones associated with the latter were loud, they lacked tightness and clarity. Considering the age of the material, this was an exceedingly minor complaint, especially since the concern only appeared in one scene. Nonetheless, I felt I should mention it.
The film’s score showed virtually no problems, however. I thought the music always seemed very smooth and lively, as the period tunes were exceedingly well-reproduced. Bass response was nicely deep and rich, and the highs sounded clean and distinct. During the new DVDs of 2001 and Clockwork, the scores provided their soundtracks’ best aspects, and that also was the case for Barry Lyndon. However, the rest of the mix worked very nicely as well, and I thought it definitely earned an “A-“.
Less appealing are the supplemental features, all of which duplicate the extras found on the original DVD. We get the theatrical trailer I mentioned earlier in the review, and we also see a listing of awards for which Barry Lyndon won or was nominated.
While Barry Lyndon wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s best film, it certainly was closer to the top than most of his works. Actually, I regard it as the last almost-great movie he made. As a whole, I thought it was generally interesting and well-executed if mildly uncompelling at times. The picture and sound on this new DVD are absolutely terrific and substantially improve upon the original release. Kubrick fans should definitely be thrilled with this disc.
Note: this new version of Barry Lyndon can be purchased on its own or as part of a nine-DVD set called the “Stanley Kubrick Collection”. In addition to Lyndon, this package includes newly-remastered DVDs of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket plus a repackaged issue of Eyes Wide Shut and a recent documentary called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures. All of the movies are available separately, but the documentary appears only in the boxed set. List price for the package is $199.92, which almost matches the $199.84 the DVDs would cost separately. If you want all of the films, the “Kubrick Collection” is a great deal; fans should be more than happy to pay eight cents for the documentary disc.