If all directors have a God complex, then no filmmaker took the job description more literally than Stanley Kubrick. Far from a sweet, gentle deity with a kindly white beard, Kubrick staunchly refused to interfere in the affairs of mortals in his filmic universe, which led to persistent charges that he hated his characters and, by extension, humanity itself. And yet the film that critics regularly point to as Kubrick’s nadir — the one that might seem the most distant and uninvolving — actually best exemplifies his very complicated relationship with his fellow humans. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel, Barry Lyndon (screening as part of the Academy’s “Great To Be Nominated” series of Best Picture losers) is a wised-up rethinking of conventional, epic period adventures where a penniless commoner predictably ascends to greatness thanks to pluck, moxie and the undeniable fortitude of his brave heart. Here, poor Irish lad Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) goes on the lam after killing an officer, reluctantly joins the English army, tries to desert, and eventually learns the secret to happiness: Marry rich. Just as his 2001 disabused audiences of the notion of a utopian future society, Kubrick deconstructs Lyndon’s romanticized era of elegant gowns and impeccable civility, envisioning a pitiless society rife with contentious class issues much like our own. The director’s scrupulous long shots — which minimize and imprison Barry within large, empty rooms or against rolling countrysides — calmly observe the young man as he futilely negotiates the intimidating waters of the military and aristocracy, while still allowing O’Neal’s empathetic performance, mostly forgotten amid Lyndon’s lavish costumes and candlelit photography, to slowly emerge as the film’s tragic center. Seamlessly charting the character’s progression from lovable naif to sly schemer to smug nobleman to honorable pariah, O’Neal transforms Barry’s luckless folly into a warning about the dangers that befall outsiders who crave power but lack the wisdom and self-awareness to hold on to it. Kubrick’s world was never affectionate, but his clear-eyed understanding of our common foibles — no matter the time period — proved that it reliably doled out healthy servings of tough love. (Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater; Mon., Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m.)
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