Title: The Legend of Barney Thomson
Director: Robert Carlyle
Major Players: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone.
Out Of Five: 3.5
Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut made its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last month and now it’s made it south of the border, opening this Friday. He’s also been on the interview treadmill recently and, asked if he was likely to direct again, said it wasn’t something he was going to rush to do again. I hope he re-thinks his decision, because The Legend Of Barney Thomson shows he’s rather comfortable in the director’s chair, especially if the film happens to be a dark comedy.
Barney (Carlyle) is a barber who’s worked at the same shabby place in Glasgow for over 20 years. He’s non-descript – by his own admission he has no patter, let alone much in the way of personality – and has no life outside that job. A freak accident ends up with Barney killing somebody but, at the same time, a serial killer has been hitting the headlines, sending the relatives of each victim a piece of the body in the post. That case is a distraction for the leaden-footed police, so Barney slips under the radar. Until he’s involved in another death ……
Inevitably it’s a very Scottish offering, but one without any tartan or shortbread. Carlyle says that some of the scenes are shot in parts of Glasgow that he knows well. The Barrowlands dance hall, for instance, has an overbearing presence on the landscape and doubles as the bingo hall frequented by Barney’s mother. The humour, of course, is just as Scottish, dry to the point of dour, very direct and, of course, dark. How funny you find the film depends on how you get on with Scottish humour, I guess.
It’s also very stylised, driven by characters loitering somewhere between reality and caricature. Ray Winstone’s Detective Holdall is a Cockney who’s been stuck north of the border for years and resents it. He resents just about everything else and, with his jewellery, hair and inability to understand a Scottish accent, is a cartoon East Ender. Tom Courtney’s hapless chief of police, also English, doesn’t have a clue about what’s happening right under his nose and addresses each of his officers by their number, not their name. And then there’s Barney’s friend, Charlie (Brian Pettifer), solitary and mournful, looking like a circus clown stripped of his make-up. Yet he hates clowns.
Barney’s mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) is the most grotesque of the lot, with a name that’s meant to be an early version of Chardonnay. In real life, Thompson’s only a couple of years older than Carlyle, but here she plays a hideous harridan in her late 60s/early 70s clad in fake leopard print. The make-up department have also done some work on her chin and neck to make her look older: at certain angles, it’s convincing, but at others it’s a shade darker than the rest of her face and very noticeable.
The least exaggerated character is Barney himself. Dull and boring, he almost passes for normal amongst those around him, but you’d never want him to give you a haircut. As he admits, he only does two styles and his own hair, long, straggly and greasy, is hardly a commercial for his skills. Yet the irony is that he becomes something of a local celebrity because of his connection with the murders: the customers come through the door and his career takes off.
Although it feels like it’s set in the 60s – the soundtrack, the clothes, the lack of computers and mobile phones, smoking anywhere, attitudes to women – the timing isn’t actually that specific. And it really isn’t too important. What’s important is that the backdrop is as down at heel and mundane as Barney himself. The barber shop where he works has the traditional leather chairs, soap and brushes and cut throat razors. No unisex salons here. There’s also a resident fly that you never see, constantly buzzing around trying to escape. Not an upmarket establishment, but exactly where you’d expect to find somebody like Barney.
I chuckled nearly all the way through – the final shoot out with the police is way over the top – and was more captivated than I’d expected. What had put me off were the photographs of Emma Thompson: taken by themselves, she looks like something out of Viz. You need to see her performance to realise that she’s actually got it right, and her Scottish accent is pretty decent as well. But with a Scottish mother, you’d expect that! I should’ve known better.
The Legend of Barney Thomson is released in cinemas on Friday, 24 July and is reviewed on Talking Pictures.