The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)    3 Stars


The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)
The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)


Director: Robert Carlyle

Cast: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone

Synopsis: Barney Thomson, awkward, diffident, Glasgow barber, lives a life of desperate mediocrity and his uninteresting life is about to go from 0 to 60 in five seconds, as he enters the grotesque and comically absurd world of the serial killer.




Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle – The 51st State, Trainspotting), a fifty-something barber in the rough end of Glasgow, is one of those anonymous background characters that drift through life like the weakest of breezes – the kind that makes no impression, and leaves no evidence of having passed through.   He’s seen his status eroded over the years as he’s been shuffled from the chair nearest the shop’s window to the one in its dimmest recesses.   He knows only two styles and lacks the patter of his colleagues, for whom customers are prepared to wait even when Barney’s chair is empty.   ‘You look like a haunted tree,’ complains one of his colleagues before informing him that, once again, he’s to be moved further away from the window.

He suffers these indignities with seething, impotent resentment.   Everyone knows his bitter complaints will amount to nothing, and that he will eventually relent.   But when the owner’s son Wullie (Stephen McCole – A Lonely Place to Die, The Wee Man) tells Barney his job is to be given to the son of his father’s friend he ends up dead on the barber shop floor.   His death is an accident, but Barney knows what everyone will think, so he bundles the body into the boot of his car.   A few days later, there’s another accident, another body – this time Chris (Martin Compston – The Wee Man, Strippers vs Werewolves), a colleague who grew suspicious.   Barney takes the body to the flat of his sharp-tongued harridan of a mother, who’s away for the weekend.    It’s not a stupid move.   She proved unexpectedly accommodating upon learning of the first killing, even going so far as to dismember Wullie’s body and placing the parts in her freezer.   However, when Barney prepares to cut up Chris, he is astonished to find that there are at least three dismembered hands in the freezer…

Black comedy is a notoriously difficult genre to pull off, whether in literature or on the screen, but first-time director Carlyle does a credible job, thanks to strong source material from novelist Douglas Lindsay.   Carlyle makes good use of some dour Glasgow locations, and paints a picture of life as a meaningless, low-key struggle for recognition that serves no purpose other than to separate birth and death.  He has a keen eye for interesting angles and framing, and a knack for blending anguished trauma with jet-black humour.    He’s also assembled some impressive talent, all of whom seem to be having a whale of a time.   Ray WInstone (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Sweeney) snarls like a wounded bulldog as an old-school copper, forced to hand over control of the hunt for a serial killer to an ambitious – and treacherous – colleague (Ashley Jensen – Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!); Tom Courtenay (The Dresser, Gambit) swears with precise gentility as his fussy Chief Superintendent, and Emma Thompson (Judas Kiss, Saving Mr. Banks) is a revelation as Barney’s truly monstrous mother.

The Legend of Barney Thomson is a dark, macabre gem that finds humour in the most gruesome situations without leaning too heavily on gore or gross-out gags.   The final act might test our patience, but is at least true to the novel, and provides some retribution for a character for whom it’s impossible to feel anything other than sympathy, despite having this strange aura of somehow inviting all the strife that befalls him.  The Legend of Barney Thomson might not be to all tastes, but if you’re the sort who likes your humour as black as pitch then you’re in for a treat.

(Reviewed 12th December 2015)

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