The Case of the Sympathetic Barber
About thirty minutes before his Red Carpet appearance, Robert Carlyle gave his frank opinion about the titular character from The Legend of Barney Thomson. “He’s not a very nice person, this Barney,” the Once Upon a Time star admitted at the Whistler Film Festival, where his directorial debut was welcomed for its North American premiere. “It’s one of the most difficult things about the script: How do I play this guy and make him somehow sympathetic? Because he’s a tit, he really is!”
It helps immensely that Carlyle dwarfs Barney’s unpleasant “outbursts” towards customers by bringing on the full force of an outrageous personality like Cemolina. Emma Thompson, a two-time Academy-Award-winning actress, is both delightful and horrifying as Barney’s mother. Only two years older than Carlyle, Thompson benefited from the expertise of Mark Coulier (Spectre, Iron Lady) for the prosthetic make-up design needed to transform her into the feisty Scottish woman. It’s Emma Thompson as you’ve never seen her.
Despite being in her seventies, Cemolina stays active with her betting at the dog races, her lively Bingo nights, and old lady dance parties. But by no means would we ever expect her to garner the accolade of “Mother of the Year” for the scathing verbal abuse she unleashes on Barney, the hapless and lonely barber. “I never saw the f***ing point of you,” she tells her long-suffering son. Ouch.
A View from the Barber’s Chair
The Legend of Barney Thomson follows the misadventures of Barney, who has been relegated to the last chair at rear of Henderson’s Barbershop. About to be fired, he accidentally kills his boss (Stephen McCole) and attracts the fierce scrutiny of Detective Inspector Holdall (Ray Winstone) and Detective Sergeant MacPherson (Kevin Guthrie). The citizenry of Glasgow are on edge about a strange wave of murders carried out by a killer who mails body parts to the loved ones. An overwhelmed Barney turns to his mother for help, which leads him to uncover some startling revelations. He’s also at a loss about what to do with his so-called friend, Charlie (Brian Pettifer), who connects the dots about the unfortunate accidents at the barbershop.
The script was written by Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren, as an adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. Understandably, there’s a bit of humor that you can’t pull over to the screen from chapter titles on paper like “Forgive Me, Mother, For I Have Sinned.” But the weakest point of the film for me is how Barney and Charlie are pitted against each other. It feels a bit too contrived, compared to the more natural comparisons between Barney and Holdall. Cowan and Carlyle said at the general Q&A that a lot of creative liberties were taken with Charlie. There’s a connection with Carlyle’s past (a local from “the cinema queue” in Glasgow) that feels far too distant for viewers to readily grasp. At the same time, there are still jokes and a richness to be gleaned from their scenes. The fair or carnival setting is a perfect backdrop for two of their conversations and not solely because they are on the teacup ride.
Dissecting the Barber’s Cut
That point leads me into a far more interesting and pleasant discussion topic: where Robert Carlyle succeeds with his directorial debut. Strong casting, already mentioned with Emma Thompson, is of great importance when the shooting schedule is very tight. Barney Thomson benefits from the talents of Ray Winstone, Tom Courtenay, Ashley Jensen, and others. Another positive aspect is the gallows humor. Adding the Glaswegian accent into the mix makes it possible for Barney’s panicked line of “His freezer is too wee!” to reduce a crowd to full-bellied laughter.
The film has a sophisticated level of cinematography, due to the fantastic artistry of Fabian Wagner (Game of Thrones, Sherlock) in scenes like the Bingo night and Barney’s daymare. The active camera, especially with a complex arc in the latter, pulls the viewer completely into the barber’s state of mind. Closely tied to the cinematography is how the sets were conceived by Carlyle and designer Ross Dempster.
It seems that some critics have found it to be “lacking” or spare, questioning the atmosphere of the Glasgow portrayed. However, Carlyle does have a very specific agenda in keeping things simple and outfitted in a sort of retro style. The jaunty tunes in the soundtrack highlight the irony in Barney’s misadventures, but they also cement a sense of timelessness in hearkening back to decades long gone. After all, legends are timeless, supposedly outliving the hazy eras and rubble in which they take shape. Barney Thomson is a neo-noir film, too, taking some inspiration from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet near the end.
There’s one last series of backdrops and background elements that I want to analyze in a way that might stretch credulity. Kasabian posters bearing Serge Pizzorno’s face pop up regularly, an obvious reference to one of Robert Carlyle’s favorite alternative rock bands. The office of Chief Superintendent McManaman (Tom Courtenay) features a taxidermy bear with its arms outstretched over Holdall as he bickers with DI Robertson (Ashley Jensen). Earlier I mentioned the fair, where Charlie and Barney circle round in the teacup.
Whether it’s entirely intentional on Carlyle’s part, (I suspect it is that) each instance of playfulness carries the underlying motif whereby violence or chaos is ready to burst into the frame. The connection is subtly drawn by the band posters, but plenty of Kasabian’s tracks (“Switchblade Smiles,” “Underdog”) are explicitly about fights. That bear looks just as menacing as it appears comically innocuous with its claws and massive size. Fairs and carnivals have a dark and maddening side (if a bit cliché) as well. Thus it’s surprising when other critics express doubt about the build-up to the inevitable, hilarious, and explosive outcome at Loch Lubnaig. There is a very convincing and well-laid trail.
The Legend of Barney Thomson is a carefully constructed film under the direction of Robert Carlyle. It’s full of surprises and great fun at every turn. You don’t want to miss the blooper reel at the end credits.
This opening feature for the Edinburgh International Film Festival is worthy of the BAFTA Scotland Awards and nominations it garnered recently. It also came out as the runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2015 Whistler Film Festival. The Legend of Barney Thomson comes out on VOD on February 2, 2016, followed by a theatrical release in North American theaters on March 11.
This article was originally posted on Blogcritics.org with the same title. I added photos and made size adjustments.