Director: Robert Carlyle
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Ashley Jenson, Martin Compston, Brian Pettifer, Tom Courtenay
Release Date: 24 July 2015 (UK)
Barney Thomson is the subject of seven novels by Douglas Lindsay. He’s not a detective, reporter nor a hero whose profession is suited to serial-form storytelling. He’s a Glaswegian barber who lives alone and lacks, as his colleagues say, ‘the chat’. From the voice-over that actor-turned-first-time-director Robert Carlyle uses in his wobbly but moderately entertaining big-screen version of the novel, The Legend of Barney Thomson, one can imagine the first person narration that Lindsay might use in his books. But then you think, surely not. The character of Barney is a quiet enigma. The voice-over, which gives the film a confident start, feels misplaced. As the Northern saying goes, ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’. You imagine Barney would rather keep his own counsel.
So who is Barney and how did he get to cut people’s hair? The film, adapted by screenwriters Colin McLaren and Richard Cowan, hints at his origins. An only child whose former prostitute mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) lives nearby and whose father upped and left. A neighbourhood barber gave Barney the only job he’s ever had. You wonder whether the barber might be his real father and why mother and son went to a remote loch for their holidays.
Voiceovers signify principal viewpoint characters, which is to say the narrator can only speak about that which they see; and we only see what they have access to. The voiceover here is a cheat. Much that takes place in the film is unavailable, indeed not of concern to Barney. There is a series of unexplained disappearances. Body parts have been mailed at some expense, and from various parts of the country, to the families of the missing. The local police are stumped. The cockney lumpen bruiser of a detective (Ray Winstone) is displaced by a younger colleague (Ashley Jenson) to lead the investigation. Barney becomes the prime suspect after he accidentally stabs his younger boss with a pair of scissors.
As Barney tries to move the body and cover his tracks, there is a local witness Charlie (Brian Pettifer) who unwittingly helps him put the body in the trunk of his car. Charlie, who dresses in a tuxedo with a raffled shirt and a Union Jack badge on his lapel, can’t stay away from Barney. He wants something; you’re not exactly sure what.
Carlyle has sunken cheeks and a thin but athletic figure. He doesn’t dominate the frame rather tactically withdraw from it. His eyes can convey fear and mania. He excels here as the reactive hero, a semi-comic figure caught up in circumstances beyond his control. There is more to the character than Carlyle is willing to portray. You wonder how the friendless Barney spends his evening.
Carlyle is at his best playing the character for laughs. He is cowed into submission – almost – by his foul-mouthed, cruel as hard-nails mother, whom Thompson portrays under heavy make-up. The mother as it turns out is the more interesting character, a gregarious soul who conducts a keep-fit class for elderly women in her flat all with a ciggie hanging from her mouth. If Lindsay had written seven novels about her, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Thompson delivers one line with Lady Bracknell-like severity – ‘I label everything’ – which could be a classic of Scottish cinema.
It is appropriate to classify The Legend of Barney Thomson as a Scottish rather than British film. Issues of class and social determinism don’t really dominate. Faced with their own shortcomings, characters lash out at one another. Buildings are deprived of care and attention. Whilst alcohol and cigarettes are consumed, drugs are notable for their absence. The film feels like a period piece with the retro haircuts, dog tracks and an absence
of mobile phones. The keep-fit class and a woman in a position of authority are the only real hints of life after 1980.
Special credit should go to cinematographer Fabian Wagner (Victor Frankenstein, Game of Thrones) who lights the daylight scenes as if the action takes place in a permanent sunset – light streams through the windows giving characters a red glow, a sharp contrast to the way British films are ordinarily lit. There is a running theme of characters needing to be liberated from Scottish mothers (in the detective’s case, his mother-in-law). Yet in The Legend of Barney Thomson, a film you cannot imagine will generate six sequels, you sense the real mother is the English
parliament. There is the sense here of characters struggling by accident rather than design to stand aloft with pride, to take the window seat.