Being a big fan of British, Welsh, Irish and Scottish cinema I feel well versed at this point in dealing with the heavy accents and slang terminology. From the Guy Ritchie Eastender dialogue to the rough slang of The Acid House to last year’s Ken Loach period drama Jimmy’s Hall, I’m usually able to pick up what people are saying. Hell, I even picked up what the heck was going on in this year’s The Witch and last year’s mumbling Tom Hardy film Legend, which probably needed subtitles here and there for both films. With this cocky attitude I threw on my screener for Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut The Legend of Barney Thomson.
For the first time in my cinephile life I was absolutely befuddled by the dialogue I was hearing from this movie. It has finally happened to me as for the first time I had zero clue what anyone was talking about for the first little bit of the film. The Glaswegian of this small Scottish dark comedy was so thick that the acclamation to it took a bit of time but, eventually, I was able to decipher some of the deeper Scottish brogue and make sense of what the heck people were saying.
The Legend of Barney Thomson is based on the book The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by writer Douglas Lindsay, the first in a proposed series, and is a dark film surrounding an antisocial barber (Carlyle) who desperately wants to break out of his lame life and be someone of note, and more to the point, be of historical value. He lives a solitary life with really no friends, his limited interactions only with his compulsively gambling, money grubbing and sour mother, Cemolina (Emma Thompson in heavy makeup). At one moment of the film he says he’d like to be Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, a hero who blazes into town as an outsider and later deemed a hero. Instead, with all the mediocrity of his normal life, Barney is just another lowly t0wny with far less significance than he would like. His life is about to get considerably less mediocre but for all the wrong reasons.
Being the least approachable barber in his shop and with constant altercations and outbursts, Barney ends up breaking through the thin ice he’d been skating on with his employer and ends up getting the boot. A physical altercation results with his boss, ending with Barney accidentally burying his scissors in his employer’s heart. Unsure of what to do, Barney bumbles around the barber shop before wrapping the body and loading it into the trunk of his car for disposal. It’s only when his mother inadvertently finds the body that a real plan comes together and Barney gets a true look at his mother’s dark thoughts, much darker than his own aggressive but controlled thoughts. Barney must keep it together towards the inquiring family of the victim (James Cosmo) as well as the two investigators on his tail (Ray Winstone and Ashley Jensen).
With all the great filmmakers that Carlyle has work with over the years, it’s obvious through the look of this film that he picked up some visual style. From the bigger directors like Trainspotting’s Danny Boyle and Angela’s Ashes’ Alan Parker to the smaller, more indie direction from Ravenous’s Antonia Bird or Once Upon a Time in the Midlands’ Shane Meadows, Carlyle has crafted his own quirky style for his debut and it makes a compelling looking film, something the actual plot has a bit of a hard time keeping up with.
The quirkiness of the story is enough to initially draw you in as Barney’s hard and angry exterior drops after the murder of his boss and he becomes this sweating and guilt ridden mess, which is played well by Carlyle but it all begins to drag a bit by the end of the second act. Winstone is also very close to roles he’s played before, a heavy and intimidating character, the distinct difference is he’s on the right side of the law this time. The highlight of the film is Emma Thompson’s brash and, at times, heartlessly brutal performance as Barney’s exasperated and sinister mother, the draw to a story that really starts to wane before a weirdly wrapped up finale.
When an actor makes the leap to being behind the camera, sometimes the transition isn’t as smooth as they’d like. Robert Carlyle managed to keep a nice stride at the start of the film but was just unable to maintain this same caliber through to the ending, as style is unable to overcome dry patches in the plot. It was also oddly off putting to see Ashley Jensen as a police detective being that I couldn’t get her awkward role from the Ricky Gervais series Extras out of my head. The subplot between the police is also a bit too strange to get behind and is a bit too Keystone cops cliche to be funny. Competing ambitious cops on one case has been done too many times in my opinion and comes of blase in this one.
For those fans of dark humor, The Legend of Barney Thomson will only entertain you until a certain point. The issue for me is that everything falls in line too neatly, with no clear surprises and as soon as any pivotal scene starts you can see exactly where the exit lies. Carlyle presents nothing new and although it looks really nice, you feel no richer in the end for having watched it. That being said, Emma Thompson really kills it. I give this a two and a half out of five.