The Legend Of Barney Thomson
Director: Robert Carlyle.
Screenplay: Richard Cowan, Colin McLaren.
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Tom Courteney, Martin Compston, James Cosmo, Ashley Jensen, Stephen McCole, Kevin Guthrie, Samuel Robertson, Brian Pettifer.
“You’ve chopped them up. You’ve even labelled them”
Unless your a follower of the TV show Once Upon a Time (which I’m not) then you’ll probably have noticed the absence of actor Robert Carlyle from our film screens. The occasional low-key drama like California Solo in 2012 and Samantha Morton’s hard-hitting The Unloved in 2009 have surfaced here and there but they didn’t receive a wide release at all. In fact, I have yet to even see the former and Carlyle had a very small role in the latter (albeit a powerful one). You’d probably have to go as far back as 2007’s 28 Weeks Later to mention a film that a mainstream audience might be more familiar with. Now, though, he’s back. And back he comes to his hometown of Glasgow to make his directorial debut with a very Scottish-centric black comedy.
Barney Thomson (Carlyle) is a socially awkward barber who fails to strike up any rapport with his customers. As a result, his boss Wullie (Stephen McCole) decides to let him go. Without his job, though, the only thing Barney has got in his life is his domineering mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson). So in a desperate bid to remain in employment, Barney finds himself in a position where bodies are piling up around him and a local detective (Ray Winstone) is breathing down his neck.Anyone who’s followed my blog for a period of time may remember the glowing praise I have regularly afforded to Carlyle. I think he’s a fantastic actor and one of Scotland’s best. It’s been saddening to see so little of him over recent years but a pleasure to see him return with an adaptation of the first book in writer Douglas Lindsay’s Barbershop Seven series – The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. It’s quintessentially a Scottish story that requires someone with a knowledge of the city (and it’s inhabitants) to adapt it for the screen and, on that note, Carlyle is the perfect man for the job.
His ability to capture the Glasgow idiom is, as expected, on full display here and there are regular moments of hilarity. He also utilises the austere city locations to brilliant effect. The time in which it’s set is not entirely clear (it could be set in the 70’s or 80’s) but Carlyle has a good eye for a bygone era and captures a particular style with crisp and observant detail. He’s also managed to assemble an impressive cast who contribute characters that are as colourful as their language; Emma Thompson is a foul mouthed treat under her cheap leopard print coat, heavy make-up and an even heavier Glaswegian accent. Winstone does his usual cockney fing but it works well for the material and there’s a quality supporting cast of Scottish actors from James Cosmo, Martin Compston, Stephen McCole and Ashley Jensen – who gives Winstone a run for his money in the three-testicle profanity stakes. As the titular character, Carlyle flits between drama and comedy with ease and displays and myriad of emotions along the way: despair, desperation and rage consume his character daily and his nervous disposition and social awkwardness doesn’t help matters.As an actor, Carlyle’s chops have never really been in question but the overhanging question surrounding this film is whether his direction is up to scratch? Well, the answer to that is a simple… yes. Yes it is. Carlyle shows some impressive and inventive directorial flourishes and you can see where directors he has worked with have had an influence on his approach. It’s definitely a talent that I hope he chooses to explore more of – although he has already stated that he’s in no rush to do so.The film is not without problems, though. They don’t rest with the performances or the direction but, predominantly, with the narrative. At times, the pacing feels off and the least said about the final third of the film, the better. Suffice to say that it drastically falls apart with a misplaced, explosive denouement that looks like it’s wandered in from another film. It’s the type of material that the Coen brother’s handle comfortably but in his first directorial outing Carlyle has enough panache and talent to make it work and make it enjoyably macabre and offbeat entertainment.It’s always been apparent that Carlyle has a flair for drama but he proves to have a good eye and ear for comedy too. I wonder how well this would translate to others who are perhaps unfamiliar with Scottish humour but, over time, this has the potential to become quite the little cult movie.Mark Walker
Trivia: Despite playing his mother, Emma Thompson is only 2 years older than Robert Carlyle (Thompson was born in 1959, Carlyle in 1961).