'The Legend of Barney Thomson'
Generally speaking, when you hear that a movie marks the directorial debut of a successful actor, that usually means it’s time to run out of the cinema. However, there are exceptions to every rule. Thankfully for fans of Scottish character actor Robert Carlyle, ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’ is one of them.
The success of Carlyle’s first outing behind the camera is likely a result of limiting his ambitions to a realistic level. This isn’t some dire and dour attempt at making a tragic masterpiece, nor is it an ego-driven attempt to get himself some gold statues for the lead role. Instead, it’s a fairly modest crime comedy of the bleak and morbid sort. The film is ultimately just a blood-splattered lark, but it’s executed with enough style and features such a damn talented cast that it emerges as a black-hearted joy.
The premise is simple but pretty clever. Carlyle stars as a burned-out barber in Glasgow for whom life is one endless pit of disappointment and despair. His mother Cemolina (a hysterical Emma Thompson) treats him like a bucket with which to fill her failures. His dreams were crushed long ago, his only friend (Brian Pettifer) uses him while giving little back, and the job that used to be the only positive in his life is slipping away. Things aren’t going much better for the city of Glasgow. A serial killer is on the loose, sending body parts to the cops through the mail. Det. Holdall (Ray Winstone) has been assigned to the case and has thus far found no promising leads, but gets regular earloads of abuse from his boss (Ashley Jensen from ‘Extras’). Holdall soon zeroes in on Thomson as a suspect. He has good reason given that Thomson recently killed a man. Unfortunately, that’s completely unrelated to the serial killing case. It was an accidental scissor-stabbing of his boss that got Thomson in over his head. Oh boy. Here comes trouble.
As a director, Carlyle wisely keeps himself in check. He’s working within genre and specifically within subgenres. The closest film of comparison would be Danny Boyle’s sordid comedy/thriller ‘Shallow Grave’, but maybe with a few extra sprinklings of the Coen brothers, ‘The League of Gentlemen’, and some Irvine Welsh-ian local dialogue. The film wallows in gallows humor and finds quite a few glorious sequences of slapstick and that queasy mix of suspense and cringe comedy. It strikes a bleakly funny tone from the opening frames and only delves deeper into the darkness from there. Yet throughout it all, Carlyle dances through the story with a light comedic touch that keeps all the darkness from becoming too overwhelming. While there are smatterings of drama and genuine thrills throughout, for the most part the movie remains a lark as a means of counterbalancing all the gruesome images and charmingly ugly characters.
Though Carlyle shoots in a stylized manner filled with wide-angle lenses, tricky editing and compositions that call attention to themselves, his primary focus is unsurprisingly directed at his actors. The characterizations are all delightfully twisted and surprisingly deep, with an excellent cast getting to show off its talents. In particular, Emma Thompson is absolutely brilliant. Cast against type as a domineering mother and caked in latex, she disappears into her despicable role while still preserving the tragedy that transformed her character into a monster. She’s so fun to watch that hopefully it won’t be the last time she’s given such an unexpected role to play.
Wintsone does his usual tough guy routine, but does it for a character so relentlessly belittled by the world that it comes off as amusingly pathetic and fruitless. Ashley Jensen plays a similarly one-note tough woman role, but that’s so unexpected from her and this type of film that the single note is more than enough to delight. Brian Pettifer delivers such a sad and twisted little man that it’s almost physically difficult to watch him, in the best possible way.
As for Carlyle himself, he wisely holds back in a straight man role for much of the movie. The actor is seemingly incapable of delivering a dishonest moment, so he does all of his bumbling beautifully without ever outshining any of his co-stars. Not because he can’t, but because it would be inappropriate for the character. It’s nice to see that Carlyle was wise enough as a director not to overindulge himself as an actor while still carrying the movie.
As much as I was tickled by the particularly Scottish brand of morbid crime comedy on display in ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’, I won’t pretend that this is a perfect movie. There are times when Carlyle seems uncertain of how to balance the humor and drama of the piece and things can play out a little awkwardly. Unfortunately, this proves to be particularly troublesome in the climax. This type of crime fiction is quite difficult to wrap up as all the disparate narrative threads must tie together tidily while still maintaining a certain level of naturalism. It’s tricky and Carlyle doesn’t quite crack it. The movie feels a little too archly constructed down the stretch and loses some of its shaggy dog charm. Still, that’s a fairly minor complaint about an otherwise delightfully twisted directorial debut.
While it would be a shame to see Robert Carlyle completely disappear from screens as a character actor to focus his attentions behind the camera, the actor has shown enough promise as a director that it would be nice to see him juggle both careers for a while to see how he develops as a filmmaker. His debut certainly won’t be for everyone, but for those who enjoy laughing at the absurdity of nasty crime fiction, ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’ serves up some dark and crunchy delights.