sun 21/07/2019

The Legend of Barney Thomson | reviews, news & interviews

The Legend of Barney Thomson

The Legend of Barney Thomson

Robert Carlyle's debut as director is confident, and darkly comic

Family reckoning, with chips: Robert Carlyle with Emma Thompson

Its title may hint at exotic worlds – a Western, even – but Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut is anything but. Carlyle himself plays the title character, one of life’s losers (“haunted tree” being one of the more memorable descriptions we get of him) who’s barely getting by as a Glasgow barber until the story, and his own unplanned actions, pitch his mundane existence to another level altogether.

But from the hangdog humour of Barney’s opening overvoice narration onwards, it’s clear this is no bleak drama of existential deprivation, even if Scottish writer Douglas Lindsay’s source novel The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson might hint in that direction. The distinctly dark element here is the comedy, which has the city caught up in a serial-killer scare which sees the dismembered body parts of victims being returned by post to their loved ones. Not-very-hot on the trail is Ray Winstone’s DI Holdall, whose southerner’s foul-mouthed loathing of Glasgow is matched by his incompetence as an investigator. Glasgow has hardly welcomed him either, with “big slab o’ bastard” among the choicer epithets offered (hard to think of a better encapsulation of the kind of role Winstone has made his own over the years).

Emma Thompson is superlative as this long-lost female scion of the 'Steptoe' clan

It’s coincidence rather than anything else that sees Holdall first walking into the barbershop. But by then Barney’s actually done something that makes the appearance of the law more than unnerving (Carlyle’s face and eyes can convey sheer terror better than any words). If it wasn’t for police-station infighting that sees Winstone’s character trumped by his more Machiavellian local rival DI (Ashley Jensen), it could have proved his lucky break, particularly when Barney goes on to get himself into even more of a mess, and haplessly unable to cover his tracks.

He gets help on that front from an unlikely quarter, his unloving mum, the alluringly named Cemolina, who's a scene-stealer if ever there was one. It practically merits a spoiler alert before revealing that she’s played by Emma Thompson (Carlyle with Thompson, main picture), who’s superlative as this long-lost female scion of the Steptoe clan, resplendent in faux-fur and swearily dismissive of her offspring: “I never saw the fucking point of you,” is the essence of her hysterical closing riff, which is actually the film’s most telling emotional moment. A tribute as much as anything else to the make-up contingent, Thompson relishes Cemolina’s raucous lust for life; alongside celebrating disgracefully with her bingo pals, she’s developed a rather more unusual sideline in her maturity (not the right word) which drives the film’s round-up revelations.

The Glasgow locations are winning throughout, though we’re left to guess exactly when the film is set – it could be almost anywhere between the depressed Seventies (Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” leads an upbeat rock-pop soundtrack) and the present day. But if you were expecting anything like the evocative black and white images of that great Glaswegian lenser Oscar Marzaroli, you’ll be disappointed: Fabian Wagner’s widescreen cinematography, on occasions rather beautifully crafted (Winstone follows Carlyle into the lair of his mother’s bingo hall, pictured above), finds degrees of warmth in the most unexpected places and relishes locations that show off the city’s garish glitter.

Barney Thompson has elements that recall the police station antics of another Scottish film of dubious taste, 2013’s Filth (which starred another local hero, James McAvoy), but Carlyle’s film is considerably more engaging. The director may have mentioned the Coen brothers as among his film’s inspirations, but its atmosphere is as distinctly local as some of the cast’s strong accents. The film’s final showdown may be stylised and as ludicrous as they come, but by then we’ve become caught up in Barney Thompson’s endearing, exaggerated lunacy.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for The Legend of Barney Thomson


The distinctly dark element here is the comedy, which has the city caught up in a serial-killer scare which sees dismembered body parts of victims being returned by post to their loved ones


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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They actually filmed a lot of this by my house - that's where the barbers' was located. For that reason alone, I need to see this.

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