Perhaps Stanley Kubrick's most underrated film, "Barry Lyndon"--adapted from the picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray--inhabits the 18th century in the way "A Clockwork Orange" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" inhabit the future: perfect sets, costumes and cinematography capture characters whose rises and falls are at once deeply tragic and absurdly comical. Narrated in avuncular form by Michael Hordern, the film follows the fortunes of Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal), a handsome Irish youth forced to flee his hometown after a duel with a cowardly English officer (Leonard Rossiter). Stripped of his small fortune by a deferential highwayman, Barry joins the British army and fights in the Seven Years War, attempting a desertion that leads him into the Prussian army. A position as a spy on an exquisitely painted con man (Patrick Magee) leads to a life of gambling around the courts of Europe, and just before the intermission our hero achieves all he could want by marrying a wealthy, titled beautiful widow (Marisa Berenson). However, Part Two reveals that Barry can no more be a clockwork orange than the protagonist of Kubrick's previous film, and his spendthrift ways, foolhardy pursuit of social advancement and unwise treatment of his new family lead to several disasters, climaxing in another horrific, yet farcical duel. Shot almost entirely in the "magic hour", that point of the day when the light is mistily perfect, with innovative use of candlelight for interiors, "Barry Lyndon" looks ravishing, but the perfection of its images is matched by the inner turmoil of its seemingly frozen characters. Kubrick is often accused of being unemotional, but his restraint is all the more affecting when, for example, Barry is struck by the deaths of those close to him, his wife writhes into madness or his stepson (Leon Vitali) vomits before he can stand his ground in a duel.
On the DVD: The extras are skimpy, a trailer and a list of awards, a French alternate soundtrack and subtitles in seven languages. However, the film--"digitally restored and remastered"--is served superbly by the medium. Letterboxed to 1.59:1 (which fits the 14:9 option of a widescreen TV), with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, the print looks and sounds wonderful, which not only allows a fresh appreciation of the wit and beauty of the film but shows just how good the apparent underplaying (unusual in Kubrick films) of the cast is. --"Kim Newman"