First released in 1975, and now showing at the BFI, this is Kubrick's most beautiful movie, and his most touching.
Based on Thackeray's satirical novel, it recounts the adventures of a scapegrace Irishman, Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal), who flees his native land and falls into the Seven Years' War, soldiering first for the British, then for the Prussians. He becomes a police spy, then a roving gambler, then – his ultimate triumph – the husband of a passive English noblewoman, the Countess Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), who bears him a son. Kubrick indulges his love of tableaux, many of them rather glassy and fish-eyed, yet there is (surprisingly for him) a delicate strain of human feeling, such as the kiss Barry plants on his dying patron during battle, and a deathbed scene that would move a stone.
Marisa Berenson, pretty as a Gainsborough, and Leonard Rossiter, as Barry's early romantic rival, are among a fine supporting cast, which partly compensates for O'Neal's somewhat bland presence at its centre. Yet even that doesn't matter, because Kubrick's pictorial sense is consistently mesmerising and engaging, be it the pistol-duels, the smoky battlefields, the candlelit interiors, the Hogarthian debauchery, the set-piece brawl on a polished ballroom floor. You can't tear your eyes from it. Loosely held together by Michael Hordern's drolly ironic narration, it might not catch very much of Thackeray's tone but it creates a world that is sumptuously, even shockingly, vivid.