Posts Tagged ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’

Once upon a time, if you were an actor of any standing whatsoever, you would not be seen dead appearing on TV: you went on the stage if you wanted respect, and in front of the cinema cameras if you were more interested in intangible stardom and cold hard cash. Times change, of course, and – the stage notwithstanding – we are informed on a fairly regular basis that films are no longer Where It Is At, and that the location of Atness is in fact now television. The fact that this is usually said by actors famous from the cinema, but now to be found popping up in productions on the smaller screen, is surely neither here nor there. The stigma of the glass bucket seems to have abated somewhat, anyway.

One of those actors who once verged on the ubiquitous but hasn’t been seen in films much recently is Robert Carlyle, who hasn’t had much of a cinema presence since the mid-late 2000s: and even then, perhaps it’s not unreasonable to suggest that his movie career never quite lived up to the promise of his early appearances in Trainspotting, The Full Monty, and The World Is Not Enough. He has, of course, been off in TV Land all this time, but now he has popped back for his debut movie as a director, The Legend of Barney Thomson.


Carlyle himself plays Thomson, a middle-aged Glaswegian barber whose progress through life becomes bumpy when his lack of natural charisma and somewhat mournful appearance (‘you look like a haunted tree,’ he is helpfully informed) begin to drive away the customers. His boss eventually has enough and gives Barney his notice, which causes him some agitation and results in the entirely accidental, though extremely suspicious-looking, death of his employer.

Rather than risk fessing up to the police, Barney ends up stashing the corpse in the flat of his elderly mother (Emma Thompson). The one piece of good fortune he has, if you can call it that, is that a serial killer is already making a habit of dismembering the flower of Glasgow’s manhood and sending various bits of them through the post, so one more mysterious disappearance may not attract much attention. Nevertheless, on the case is DI Holdall (Ray Winstone), who soon develops his own suspicions about the hapless hair-wrangler…

The trained monkeys of the national media, ever keen to keep people from actually having to have original thoughts, have already discerned an influence upon The Legend of Barney Thomson that has prompted them to dub it ‘Tartantino’. It is true this is a film with some grisly moments, a spot of unrestrained gunplay, and an F-bomb count soaring towards three figures, but it seemed to me to be rather more in the (collapsed) vein of The League of Gentlemen than anything trans-Atlantic in origin.

This is ultimately a jet-black comedy film, and a rather absurd one, too: but it does get its laughs, mainly because of the deadpan responses of a strong cast to some of the more outrageous moments of horror. ‘You’ve labelled him!’ cries our man, aghast, on opening his mum’s freezer to discover she has chopped up and plastic-wrapped his first unintended victim. ‘I label everything!’ responds Mrs Thomson.

I rather suspect it’s Emma Thompson’s performance as Barney’s mum that this film will be remembered for – she is playing a 70-something chain-smoking foul-mouthed ex-prostitute bingo addict (‘not a role with which she is usually associated’, according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia). Does she manage find the truth and reality in this character? Well, probably not, in all honesty, but it is a very memorable comic grotesque and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Thompson virtually walks off with the entire film, but she is given some resistance by (as I said) a good cast, many of whom have history with Carlyle. The star himself is very much playing the straight man, which allows other performers to push the boat out a bit. Winstone may approach the realm of geezerish self-parody but is still very funny, while Tom Courtenay tries very hard to steal all his scenes as the local chief of police (‘I refuse to eat off a plate that’s served up a human arse,’ he declares at one point).

The whole film is an odd mixture of gory slapstick farce and finely-observed scenes of atmospheric Scottish life – at one point a poster for Kasabian appears on someone’s wall, but apart from this the film could be set in the 1960s and 70s, filled as it is with faded bingo halls, sepia-tinted pubs, old-fashioned barber shops and crumbling tower blocks. The soundtrack likewise seems to hearken back to an earlier age – there are signs of an odd sort of nostalgia, amidst all the severed body parts.

This element of the film is rather languid and naturalistic and probably shows off Carlyle’s direction at its best. He seems rather less comfortable dealing with the requirements of the main storyline, although it could just be that the script isn’t quite tight enough to really sing. Certainly there are signs of it running out of ideas in the third act. To be fair, the story starts off as fairly absurd, but the climax is well and truly ridiculous, totally impossible to take seriously as the conclusion to an even partly-serious film.

Still, I enjoyed it, I think: I do remember laughing a lot and the chance to see a lot of fine actors putting pedal to the metal and really going for it in their performances is not one that comes along every day. On the strength of The Legend of Barney Thomson, Carlyle should come back from TV Land more often, as an actor and a director, although something slightly less frenetic and bizarre might suit him better in the latter department.

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