Monday, 25 April 2016

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

Based on a novel by Douglas Lindsay, The Legend of Barney Thomson is an impressive directorial debut from actor Robert Carlyle; a quirky and grubby love letter to his native Glasgow - it's certainly good to have him back on these shores making small, cultish movies.  

Starring as the eponymous Thomson, Carlyle is a modern day Scottish variant on Sweeney Todd: a hapless, discontented barber pushed further to the back of the shop because of his lack of patter who uses the tools of his trade to diminish the local population. It's all an accident of course, at least initially; a skirmish with his boss who wants to sack him concludes with him getting a pair of scissors embedded in his chest. Luckily for Thomson, Scotland is currently in the grip of a particularly unpleasant serial killer, who posts dismembered body parts to the constabulary (a leg here, a hand there, a cock and an arse) represented by DI Holdall, an increasingly embittered cockney fish-out-of-water played by Ray Winstone, and his rival, the ambitious, modern thinking and officious DI Robertson (Ashley Jensen), who are stymied for a lead on the killer's identity. 

Much of the buzz around Barney Thomson was the casting of Emma Thompson as Carlyle's character's raddled bingo playing old mother Cemolina, despite Thompson being just two years older than Carlyle in real life. It's a wonderfully eccentric stroke, and the performances - Thompson drenched in prosthetics - matches it, so its easy to see why this became the film's main draw and point of interest. Yes, it's a 'big' performance but, as the nightmare mother from hell, it really couldn't really be anything else so it would be churlish and rather joyless to complain. It also perfectly compliments the increasingly jittery (and very funny) turn from Carlyle as things get disastrously out of hand.

But its worth pointing out that Carlyle didn't just stop there when it come to pulling together a strong cast; there's also a delightfully foul mouthed cameo from Tom Courtenay as the police chief, Martin Compston, James Cosmo, Stephen McCole, Barbara Rafferty and that wonderfully underrated Scottish acting legend, Brian Pettifer as Charlie, Thomson's friend; a man who has to ask Thomson to go on the fairground rides with him for fear of looking like a paedophile going on them alone. Fair enough too; with his tight curls, '70s frilly shirt, suit and bowtie, he cuts the kind of figure that you really wouldn't trust with your kiddies.

If all this sounds OTT, it's pretty accurate, but to call this outlandish would actually do it something of a disservice. Carlyle, perhaps taking a leaf out of Irvine Welsh's book, creates a realistically drab and curious Glasgow that is only marginally heightened. For example, I could imagine someone like Charlie existing there, as much as the Henderson barbershop still being a going concern. Granted, some of the characterisation, the more outre moments of gore and the denouement may occasionally threaten to tip the action into more surreal and more familiar waters, but Carlyle's hand remains firmly on the tiller to keep the authentic localism and sense of place largely intact. The lounge music soundtrack - all Acker Bilk, Engelbert Humperdinck and Roy Orbison - really helps with this, along with Fabian Wagner's sublime and eye catching cinematography.

Based on this evidence, I really hope Carlyle steps behind the camera again soon. 

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