Unassuming Glasgow barber Barney Thomson has a bit of a problem: he’s just accidentally killed his boss and needs to get rid of the body. Trouble is, the police are already on the hunt for a body-dismembering serial killer, and Barney’s predicament ends up putting him directly onto their radar. Unfortunately for him, it only goes downhill from there.
Films with a particular kind of humour are best served when the tone is immediately and unequivocally established at the outset, and the postal delivery of a severed penis in a cardboard box pretty much sums up the kind of twisted absurdity we can expect from The Legend of Barney Thomson. While the basic premise of a serial killing hair-cutter might call to mind a certain Demon Barber of Fleet Street, rather than serving a dark and hungry god, Barney is a frustrated man who has watched life drift by him as “one of the pishy wee townsfolk where every fucker knows your name.”
Robert Carlyle proves himself as dependable as ever as the eponymous sort-of hero, capturing Barney’s perpetual bemusement as he stumbles through one bizarre situation after another as if he is the only person who can see just how ridiculous it all is. As well as starring in the film this also marks Carlyle’s feature directorial debut, and with his only previously credit being a single episode of Stargate: Universe, he has much to prove as a reliable helmer. Fortunately, he does not disappoint. His early life in Glasgow has afforded him a knowledge of the city’s less photogenic areas, so instead of the prismatic expanse of the river at night or the distinctive armadillo shell of the Clyde Auditorium, the grimy neon of the Barrowlands is as close to glamour as the film gets, otherwise largely playing out in wet grey backstreets and concrete tenements. Dark and anonymous places for dark and anonymous deeds.
Although the story is rooted in reality, the slightly surreal world in which it takes place allows for a number of memorable supporting characters who exist on just the right side of caricature and are played by ever-reliable actors. Emma Thompson, despite being only two years older than Carlyle, is frighteningly convincing as his mother, and with heavy makeup, a granite-hard dyed perm, thermonuclear tan and a fag perpetually hanging out her profanity-spewing mouth, nails the attitude and accent of a pure Glasgae granny. Ray Winstone gives his usual gruff growling as Detective Holdall, a “big slab of bastard” who first stumbles onto Barney’s trail. Trapped in a city he despises and surrounded by colleagues who don’t respect him, he is in a way similar to Barney, as both men are frustrated at where life has led them but lack the courage to actually do anything about it. After having a career consisting largely of comedic and romantic supporting roles, Ashley Jensen is an utter revelation as the seemingly unhinged DI Robertson. As aggressively profane as Barney’s mother and with the manic intensity of a rabid ferret, her standoffs with Holdall are a storm of blonde fury, while the fact that she is clearly quite willing to pick a fight with someone twice her size fits in with the slightly unreal tone of the film.
A dark, twisted and joyously farcical black comedy, The Legend of Barney Thomson deftly demonstrates Robert Carlyle is just as talented a presence behind the camera as he is in front of it. As the film was based on the first of series of books that escalates in comical improbability as it progresses, we can only hope this is not the last we’ve seen of both Carlyle the director and Thomson the legend.
THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMSON / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ROBERT CARLYLE / SCREENPLAY: RICHARD COWAN, COLIN MCLAREN / STARRING: ROBERT CARLYLE, EMMA THOMPSON, RAY WINSTONE, ASHLEY JENSEN, BRIAN PETTIFER, MARTIN COMPSTON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10