Director – Robert Carlyle.
Writer – Colin McLaren, Richard Cowan
Starring – Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winston
Once every now and then you come across a film you had never heard anything about, that somehow slipped through the cracks and was given little recognition or praise, but turns out to be a delight. Robery Carlyle’s The Legend of Barney Thomson is one of those films; a truly magical, if macabre, little British dark-comedy.
Set in Glasgow, the film centers around 50-year-old Barney Thomson (Carlyle), who works at Henderson’s Barbers in Bridgeton and lives a life of desperate mediocrity. Barney’s uninteresting life gets turned upside down when he enters the grotesque and comically absurd world of a serial killer after accidentally killing his boss Wullie. He then brings his mother into things (Thompson) before finding himself pursued by two rival detectives, Hold-All (Winston) and June (Ashley Jensen.)
The plot is as delightful in action as it sounds on paper, and the idea of the accidental killer is a fantastic one that doesn’t tend to be harvested, as the comedic goldmine it, is often enough. McLaren and Cowan manage this via one unbelievably well-written script, absolutely dripping in rich Scottish cynicism. Not only is the dialogue hilarious standing alone, but when coupled with the thick Glaswegian accent and colloquialisms, it becomes truly a delight to revel in.
The one-liners are never ending, and keep up a level of consistency that is extremely impressive; this is one of those rare films that is endless quotable, and you’ll find yourself dropping the various insults into your daily conversation. Either that, or you’re not as weird as me and don’t talk primarily in film quotes. Either way, here are a few of my favourites;
- ‘’You hang over the customers like a shitty cloud, scaring them away standing there like a big streak of piss. It’s like you’ve had a charisma bypass. You look like a haunted tree, that’s all I’m saying.’
- ‘The freezer’s too wee.’ ‘What?’ ‘Its too wee!’
- ‘I’ve killed Wullie!’ ‘I saw that.’
As you can see, most of the humour is derived by the wonderful juxtaposition between Barney’s anxiety-riddled mess and the other character’s deadpan responses. It’s magical, and a lot of it rides on the chemistry and performance of the cast.
Carlyle pulls double-duty with ease, both leading and directing. Whilst I’ll get to his performance behind the camera shortly, his performance before it is equally as good. He wears his character like a fine glove, endlessly convincing and entertaining in equal abundance. He’s electric, in a deliberately non-electric manner. He is the perfect storm of nerves and wit, and comes out looking incredible. He’s been a long-standing highlight of the British acting scene, an unsung hero if you will. Whilst it may be too late to cement himself in the hearts of the mainstream, he’ll always have a lot of respect from cinephiles, particularly those with an eye on the British scene.
The rest of the cast is equally brilliant, giving bizarre and beautiful performances to match the almost surreal scenario. Winston is his usual gruff self, and if you’ve seen one of his performances, you’ve honestly seen most of them. Still, he turns up, performs his role well and deserves plaudits.
Thompson, arguably the most celebrated member of the cast, and the center of most marketing, gives an incredibly deadpan performance bordering on disinterest. Her non-chalant manner leads to some side-splitting moments, and she’s so clearly not into this whole scenario. Still, that was what was asked of Thompson, and boy did she deliver with spades. Ashley Jensen also makes a welcome appearance. After her role in Extras which made her a temporary household name in Britain, she seemed to not quite manage the transition toward superstardom in the same way her co-star Ricky Gervais did. That being said, it’s always a delight to see her turn up in anything, and she always brings a girlish charm that makes her endlessly likable.
For a first-time directorial talent, Carlyle also does an incredibly mature job. The cinematography is beautiful, and it’s clear he’s drawn on some of the greats for inspiration. The pacing is perfect, the editing tidy, and everything is magnificently captured. Carlyle’s talents seem to be endless, and perhaps he can achieve the recognition as a director he never quite received as a thespian.
The Legend of Barney Thomson is one of those very few films I’d recommend to anybody who happens to be British, and tentatively suggest to those overseas. Whilst a lot of the comedy will likely to be lost in translation, as the film is quintessentially British as they possibly come, the narrative and themes would suffer no such issue. A sparkling screenplay, beautifully shot and fantastically acted; this is a real bloody triumph.
Final Rating – 4.5