"Crafted with affection by it’s director and star. The choice to emphasise Glasgow as a setting that speaks for itself and a towering performance by Thompson make the film enjoyable"
The concept of a murderous barber is hardly a new one, yet the hapless character of Barney Thomson never intended to follow in Sweeney Todd’s footsteps. His disastrous exploits make up the story of Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut The Legend of Barney Thomson, which is out on now on DVD. Stylistically the movie is filmed beautifully and features some solid performances, but it can’t get away from a messy final act that leaves us as lost as the bumbling barber himself.
The Legend of Barney Thomson begins as Barney (Robert Carlyle), about to be fired from his job, accidentally murders his boss (Stephen McCole). Enlisting the help of his ruthless mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson), Barney’s attempts to cover up his crime becomes far more difficult as bitter Cockney policeman Detective Holdall (Ray Winstone) becomes suspicious. Soon the barber finds himself in a mess that only a miracle could get him out of.
When the film initially came out, the majority of the buzz was concerning Emma Thompson’s prosthetic-assisted transformation into Carlyle’s elderly mother. It’s unsurprising- the character is quite a creation, aided by Thompson’s expressive face and a raspy Glaswegian accent that suggests a throat ravaged by a lifetime’s worth of cigarettes.
Credit should go to Carlyle as well however. Best known for his part as the psychotic Begbie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, he found some time between his current role in the popular American TV show Once Upon A Time to take up this passion project as director and star. His Barney Thompson is a bitter figure, trodden on by all that surround him and always just one trembling step away from completely losing his nerve. His disastrous haircut is an excellent tip of the hat to his professional failure.
The direction is very much demonstrative of Carlyle trying out a new role behind the camera, boasting inventive camera angles and conspicuously meticulous set designs. The first half of the film is unapologetically grisly in some parts, and shots are effectively bathed in the same claustrophobic orangey-red as Cemolina’s hair.
It also makes Robert Carlyle’s hometown of Glasgow into another feature character of the film. The movie chooses to affectionately emphasise parts of the city that have remained stoically unchanged, from the greyhound racing track to the Barrowlands Ballroom- indeed, in some shots you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film wasn’t really set in the modern day but rather forty years previously. It’s a conscious decision, and paired with a dated soundtrack gives the impression of Barney Thomson being one who is old-fashioned and out of touch. A pertinent choice to film one pivotal scene with his mother in the current ruins of the Glasgow Red Road Flats (first opened in the 1970s), again gives the sense that he has spent his life lost in a crumbling past.
The problem with The Legend of Barney Thomson lies in its relationship with the source material, Douglas Lindsay’s novel The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, which itself lacks depth and suffers from some messy plot devices. The film improves on the book in regards to Cemolina, gifting Emma Thompson with a role far more worthy of her by increasing the character’s backstory and giving her more time than the book allows. It emphasises the blackly comedic tone of the book too, in order to make up for the somewhat ridiculous plot, a plot referenced in the title change of the screen adaptation. The story is so far-fetched that it certainly has the qualities of a legendary tale.
Where the film doesn’t improve on the book is the ending, which becomes even more over-the-top in order to conclusively close the action. To be a true improvement, as opposed to a simple adaptation, this issue from the book needed to be dealt with on screen in a way that found a better answer to plot difficulties. As it is, it’s just far too silly and neat to really be enjoyable.
With the DVD release now out, the DVD extras do boast a good audio commentary track by Carlyle himself, as well as a few deleted scenes and an all-too-brief blooper reel. More of Ray Winstone giggling would have been much appreciated!
The Legend of Barney Thomson is a project crafted with affection by it’s director and star. The choice to emphasise Glasgow as a setting that speaks for itself and a towering performance by Thompson make the film enjoyable, although as a Scot myself it’s hard to tell whether those unfamiliar with Scotland would enjoy the movie in quite the same way. It’s definitely a film that’s openly proud of the country in which is it set, whilst being aware of the black humour that is readily available. In the end though, the film is let down by its shaky ending, an unfortunately inherited curse from the source material. Nevertheless the fledgling directorial skill of Robert Carlyle is intriguing, and I’ll be curious to see if he will ever chooses to return behind the camera in the future.