Director: Robert Carlyle
Cast: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen
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Robert Carlyle makes his directorial debut with The Legend of Barney Thomson, a title that fits the movie like batter deep-fried around a Mars Bar. The words “legend” and “Barney Thomson” couldn’t seem more at odds with each other: outlandish and epic on the one hand; dour and plain on the other. The film revels in that clash of tone.
Barney (Carlyle) is a miserable sort in a town full of miserable people. You couldn’t imagine the barber being a legend of any sort – he can barely even hold a conversation with a customer. That turns out to be a problem for his boss, who wants rid of him so he can hire someone with friendlier banter. A swift accidental murder later and Barney’s in even worse trouble. It’s not long before (the brilliantly named) Detective Inspector Holdall (Ray Winstone going full Ray Winstone) is sniffing around. The twist? The cop’s not even after him for that death – there’s a serial killer on the loose and Holdall reckons Barney’s to blame.
Carlyle milks the constant juxtaposition of the mundane and the macabre, the mistakenly homicidal and the moronic, forcing a wedge of dark comedy between the two. The gap is jarring – but intentionally so. From the opening voice over accompanied by shots of dismembered body parts, this is pulp fiction in the messiest sense of the word; you can almost see the lumps of the original novel after it’s been chopped, blended and mashed for the screen.
On the one hand, that’s The Legend of Barney Thomson’s greatest strength. The Glaswegian locations are wonderfully drab and the cast amusingly colourful, always out of step with each other. Holdall may have the wrong suspect, but he can sense something’s off about the whole story. Fitting right in with that are some stellar supporting turns, from Tom Courtenay as Holdall’s rude boss to Ashley Jensen as his rival, the overly macho DI Robertson. Taking the biscuit, though, is Emma Thompson, who transforms herself as Barney’s hilariously repulsive mum – a turn that recalls Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose, if Mia Farrow’s character slipped in an ashtray while doing an impression of Vera Duckworth.
Carlyle gives his actors oodles of space to be as awkward as possible, but while the cast benefit, the rest of the production suffers: the script, which is balanced on a knife edge between rib-tickling and nerve-jangling, feels too uneven to be fully either. A surprisingly bloody conclusion to one subplot only emphasises the wildly unbalanced mood. The result is eccentric and odd, in a way that only real life can be. But sometimes, you need a little polish to make your grit easier to digest.