Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut assembles a great cast to solid but unspectacular effect, but also succeeds in making the less fashionable bits of Glasgow look stunning on the big screen. It’s a darkly tragicomic tale of a meek and timorous barber in the Bridgeton area of the city, and while it isn’t the best of its kind The Legend Of Barney Thomson still garners enough laughs and twists to be worthy of your time.
Barney is a deeply sad character, one who life has passed by without any great affection ever being lavished on him, and Carlyle portrays him sympathetically but realistically. He’s not an unheralded saint but a flawed and spineless man who still comes across as unfortunate. As a barber, all he’s ever wanted is to cut people’s hair by the window, but due to his complete absence of patter it’s not to be. His Mum (Emma Thompson, clearly having a great time playing a domineering Glaswegian matriarch) hates him, and the only friend he has is Charlie (Brian Pettifer) although this seems to be more out of mutual pity than any actual fondness. Barney’s boss Wullie (Stephen McCole, who you might remember from Rushmore) is trying to get rid of him and everyone else regards him with a mix of pity and scorn.
It’s to Carlyle and co-redrafter Colin McLaren’s credit that the film feels down to Earth, and specifically Glaswegian earth. Working on a draft by Richard Cowan (First A.D. on films such as The Cabin In The Woods), the script here doesn’t shy away from making people unlikeable, from making the dialogue realistic at the cost of a possible gag. For a black comedy, it also works hard to establish Barney’s plight as lamentable, and his actions as plausibly useless given his personality, resources, and haircut.
As we see Barney reach new lows, we also get gradually clued into the ongoing hunt for a serial killer who keeps sending the police body parts. Initially this is jarringly spliced in with the introductory montage, and isn’t explained until later. The officers in charge of the case are Ray Winstone and Kevin Guthrie (Sunshine On Leith) as Holdall and MacPherson, who have a rivalry with DIs Robertson and Jobson (Ashley Jensen and Sam Robertson) and an unsympathetic Chief Superintendent (Tom Courtenay).
First of all: well done to whoever made the prosthetics for the various severed limbs and appendages. I can’t wait to see the props turn up on film memorabilia sites.
Second of all: this is the best performance I’ve seen from Ray Winstone in a wee while, even including all those ads where he’s a giant floating head. It helps that he’s playing a vainglorious and belligerent man equally as unsatisfied with his lot as Barney – giving him a decent something to work with – but despite being relatively competent Holdall is, as with everyone in this film, never a totally sympathetic character. Ashley Jensen’s innate likability and occasional hints of frailty are useful in a difficult character to pull off, as DI Robertson spends most of the film in shouting matches, being insulted, and being worse at solving the case than Holdall.
Barney ultimately becomes mixed up in the murder case through a combination of meekness, bad luck, and incompetence, and as such acts incredibly suspiciously when the police come calling. The main strengths of the film are the increasingly desperate lengths Barney goes to in order to not be arrested as a serial killer, as these are inevitably total mince, and the film mines enough decent laughs from its setup to succeed as a comedy. It’s not consistently hilarious, but it’s solid enough, and manages to get some big laughs from something as innocuous as describing the size of kitchen appliances.
It also looks great, borrowing freely from Western imagery and The Third Man references, and kudos to whoever lensed the shot of the Barrowlands from out front. Fabian Wagner (Game Of Thrones, Sherlock) makes the shot choices look great, even if the homages give it a slightly inconsistent visual style. Where the film falls down is in not making that extra leap, standing on its own two feet. It’s a first go as a director, so it’s not a total shock that it feels like a first step, wearing its influences on its sleeve.
There are films that are pithier and more offensive in their comedy and manage to do more with horrible people saying horrible things, whereas The Legend Of Barney Thomson isn’t really looking to go that far. It seems quite comfortable in its own skin, and if it hasn’t quite struck out with its own identity it is at least nicking stuff from classy establishments.
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