Watching Barry Lyndon is like seeing a Rococo painting come to life. It reminded me of Fragonard and Watteau. It’s visually astonishing with a sorrowful and beautiful soundtrack (click the second YouTube link if you’d like to listen to it while reading), sumptuous costumes and a lush decor. It is a picaresque story, at least all through the first half. Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil), an Irishman who is neither rich nor noble, falls in love with a girl whose family is in need of some substantial financial assistance. Easy to understand that they don’t think that Redmond is a good match. Unluckily he is young and stubborn and thus provokes a duel with the future husband of the girl he loves.
After shooting him and seeing his opponent sink down, Redmond is led to believe, he has killed him and is sent off to Dublin with the money of his mother and of a friend of the family. Unfortunately the money is stolen from him on his journey. As is typical for picaresque stories Redmond stumbles from one mishap into the other. He ends up serving with the English army in the seven-year war, deserts, serves with the German army, meets a gambler, helps him… As visually stupendous as the first half is, I wasn’t entirely interested but that changed completely with part two.
In the second half of the film Redmond meets Lady Honoria Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), fancies and seduces her and, after her geriatric husband dies suddenly, he marries her. She is a very rich woman and he will do his very best to spend her fortune. Unfortunately for him and the son she gives him, he doesn’t automatically acquire a title as well.
The misfortunes and mishaps continue throughout the movie until the end. Redmond brings a lot of those onto himself and I never really liked him until I had time to think about he movie later on.
What made me like the second part is Honoria Lyndon. One of the crucial moments in the movie is when the newlyweds sit together in the carriage. His young wife begs Redmond not to smoke in the carriage and he not only continues but deliberately blows the smoke into her face. At that moment Honoria Lyndon reminded me of Henry James’ Isabel Archer, when she discovers that she has been trapped and that there is no real love in her marriage. The disappointment and disillusionment in her beautiful face was very moving. As said before, I started to be truly interested in what happened once Honoria was introduced. She is such a tragic figure. Redmond gets more and more hateful but in the end, after the movie was over and looking back on all that has happened to him and where he came from, I felt pity for him as well.
Barry Lyndon is a very long and very slow movie. We are meant to dwell on those pictures and – given the choice of the music, Händel’s Sarabande – we can see this movie as a meditation on hope and sorrow.
I don’t know how true the movie is to Thackeray’s novel. We often hear a voice-over commenting Redmond’s actions which sounds as if it was taken directly from the novel. Maybe anyone has read it?