'The Legend of Barney Thomson': Edinburgh Review

The Legend of Barney Thomson Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival

The Legend of Barney Thomson Still - H 2015

Barber-noir wields a less-than-razor-sharp comic edge.

Robert Carlyle and Emma Thompson star in Carlyle's directorial debut, a Canada-U.K. co-production opening the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival.

A sad-sack barber becomes an unlikely serial-killer suspect in The Legend of Barney Thomson, a Glaswegian dark comedy from local hero Robert Carlyle. At age 54, the esteemed Trainspotting and Full Monty actor makes a belated big-screen directorial debut with this intermittently droll ensembler, but doesn't yet possess the timing and touch upon which all such farces depend. And while Carlyle's amusingly anguished central performance is solid — bolstered by noisier supporting turns from Emma Thompson and Ray Winstone box-office prospects in the U.K. (where it's released by Icon on July 24) look marginal for this Canadian co-production.

Overseas festivals seeking late-night crowdpleasers should nevertheless check it out, while further fringe benefits will doubtlessly be reaped via small-screen exposure given that several players — including Carlyle (Stargate SGU), Ashley Jensen (Extras) and Martin Compston (Line of Duty) — have scored notable TV success in recent years. Indeed, it's easy to imagine Carlyle delivering further Thomson adventures for the home-viewing format — two decades after his hit BBC cop-show Hamish Macbeth — and there's no shortage of potential material given that the character appears in no fewer than seven novels by author Douglas Lindsay.

Richard Cowan and Colin McClaren's script — based on the first in the series, The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson (1999) — sees the mild-mannered snipper engulfed by mid-life crisis when he hits the age of 50 and is subjected to a gradual but humiliating series of demotions by his boss Wullie (Stephen McCole). While nobody's idea of a Sweeney Todd, Thomson's bottled-up discontents occasionally flare to the surface — with ultimately catastrophic results. When he accidentally stabs Wullie to death with his scissors during a scuffle, he's faced with that ever-tricky business of corpse-disposal. Turning to his mother Cemolina (Thompson) for assistance, the desperate Barney is quickly enmeshed in a web of increasingly macabre developments.

As is often the case with such fare, as the bodies pile up so does plausibility recede and any concrete connection with the real world. That isn't a major problem here, as we're obviously seeing the universe through Barney's eyes — he occasionally narrates, touching on a passion for Westerns that intermittently informs the picture's mood and aesthetic. His hard-knock suburb of Bridgeton, while ostensibly present-day, exists in an odd, miasmic time-warp — at certain junctures we seem to be in the mid-sixties or even earlier. Soundtrack cuts are atmospherically retro; Ross Dempster's production design and Game of Thrones alumnus Fabian Wagner's widescreen cinematography (which overdoes the backlighting at times) combine to evoke convincingly lived-in but somehow off-kilter spaces.

Conspicuously, however, there's zero mention of politics, religion or football — in a city where all three notoriously intertwine throughout the social fabric — and two of the most senior coppers on view, foul-mouthed Superintendent McManaman (a game Tom Courtenay, self-consciously playing against type) and blunderbuss Inspector Holdall (Ray Winstone) are audibly and unmistakably English. The screenplay does at least give a passing reason for Holdall's transplantation north of the border, and his forceful undercurrent of disgust at being stuck in what he frequently refers as a "shit-hole" reaps consistent comic dividends. This role ("big slab o' bastard") isn't exactly a stretch for Winstone, but he inhabits it with a growling gravitas that lends welcome ballast to a film that lurches from scene to scene without ever building much zip or momentum.

And while the casting of Thompson, just two years Carlyle's senior is a gamble that could easily have seemed gimmicky, the half-Scottish Oscar-winner is a riot as the grotesque Cemolina, a raucously broad-accented, chain-smoking schemer resplendent in faux-ocelot. A less drastic disfigurement than her Nanny McPhee persona, Thompson's wrinkly jowls represent another triumph for prosthetics designer Mark Coulier (The Iron Lady, Rush, Coriolanus, Harry Potter, etc), in the vein of his work on Tilda Swinton in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Thompson and Winstone take turns at scene-stealing, and a luxuriously-coiffed McCole is excellent value in his all-too fleeting appearances — but poor Jensen is all at sea as Holdall's nemesis on the force, her vaudeville-style mugging the chief give-away of Carlyle's directorial inexperience. A noted stage-director who also took the reins on Stargate SGU's segment 'Pathogen', Carlyle struggles to cope with not only taking on two prominent jobs in the same movie — as a director, he doesn't leave much of a distinctive or original stamp — but also electing to tackle a genre which can outfox relative veterans. Carlyle and company have cited the Coen brothers as a key influence on The Legend of Barney Thomson — ironic that the Coens came a cropper with their stab at stylized barber-noir, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), still their lowest-grossing release this century.

Production companies: Sigma Films, Trinity Works Entertainment
Cast: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone, Tom Courtenay, Ashley Jensen, Brian Pettifer, Kevin Guthrie, Stephen McCole, James Cosmo
Director: Robert Carlyle
Screenwriters: Richard Cowan, Colin McClaren (based on the novel 'The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson' by Douglas Lindsay)
Producers: John G Lenic, Kaleena Kiff, Brian Coffey, Holly Brydson, Richard Cowan
Executive producers: Douglas Apatow, Kirk d'Amico
Cinematographer: Fabian Wagner
Production designer: Ross Dempster
Costume designer: Sharon Long
Editor: Mike Banas
Composers: Antony Genn, Martin Slattery
Casting: Kahleen Crawford
Sales: Sigma Films, Glasgow
No Rating, 96 minutes