The Legend Of Barney Thomson, Robert Carlyle’s first feature as a director is a black comedy that stars him as an inept Glaswegian barber mistaken for a serial killer.
The Barber of Barrowlandby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Robert Carlyle was unforgettable as psychopathic Begbie in Trainspotting. He’s known for playing violent, intense characters. But in his first film as director as well as actor, he’s very different. In The Legend of Barney Thomson, he’s a lank-haired, mild-mannered, socially awkward barber in a down-at heel, traditional barber’s shop, facing dismissal by his boss Wullie (Stephen McCole) because he has no patter, who accidentally becomes a serial killer and faces the problem of corpse disposal. The dim-witted police confuse him with the real serial killer they’re tracking, who is posting body parts to victims’ relatives. It’s a black comedy beautifully framed and shot by cinematographer Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones).
It’s partly a love letter to Carlyle’s home city of Glasgow. It has some superb locations – the Barras, the site of a famous market; the Barrowlands Ballroom, used as the set for a bingo hall; and the bleak rubble-strewn site of semi-demolished tower blocks of Red Road, where some surprising revelations are made. It’s shot in moody, sometimes smokily atmospheric, Fifties-ish colours and is set in an undefined, timeless era. It appears to be contemporary, but there are no mobile phones or computers and everything looks oddly old-fashioned.
Tone is a problem – it’s black comedy, but it’s very stylised and nothing quite rings true in its own universe or is funny enough. Carlyle has got together a collection of fine actors, but their characters are caricatures, and so why would you engage with them? Ray Winstone is an over-the-top old-fashioned cop as Detective Inspector Holdall, a loud-mouthed Cockney fish out of water in a Scotland he hates. Ashley Jensen is his superior, a manic, mouthy harridan who refuses to believe him even though he’s the closest to finding the killer. Brian Pettifer is Barney’s friend Charlie, weirdly other worldly, with a clown-like mop of hair and a bemused look. Tom Courtney’s performance as the police chief is the most understated, but his appearance is brief and his character strangely inexplicable, addressing his staff by number not name for a purpose that is not developed. The most bizarre of all is Emma Thomson. Only two years older than Carlyle, she plays his mother, Cemolina, with a faceful of latex wrinkles, a Dot Cotton wig and a moth-eaten leopard-skin jacket. But it’s a scene-stealing comic turn – Thomson gets the coarse accent just right and she’s suitably domineering and disgusting. She’s very, very funny but grotesque all the same.
It’s not a vanity project, it’s not a bad film, it’s well directed, just not as good as you’d want it to be and perhaps not the sort of film you’d have expected Robert Carlyle to make. You wonder why he chose it. It looks superb and has some relatively funny moments, but its twists and reveals are overly farcical without anything to back them up. It’s tempting to sum it up as influenced by Coen Brothers, Tarantino and League of Gentlemen, but really it’s sub all of those and the Tarantino-esque Mexican stand-off at the end isn’t exploited enough to make it all worthwhile.
Judging from the outtakes at the end, it was a lot of fun to make. The screenplay is by Richard Cowan, who spent years bringing the project to fruition, and Colin McLaren. The film is adapted from The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay, first published in 1999, and one of a series of Barney Thomson novels. An indisputably Scottish film, it premiered to great acclaim and rave reviews at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
The Legend Of Barney Thomson is released on 24th July 2015 in the UK