EIFF 2015 – The Legend of Barney Thomson
,The 2015 Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) kicked off for me with The Legend of Barney Thomson, the first feature film to be directed by Robert Carlyle.
Carlyle also takes the lead as an unassuming barber named Barney Thomson who is heavily unappreciated in his job. An opening monologue relays that he would rather just cut hair without any awkward small talk but his boss Wullie (Stephen McCole) has other ideas. His vision of what a hairdresser should be means that Barney is taken further away from the prime clients. He also finds himself shunned by customers who would rather have a more personable barber work on them.
Right from the beginning Barney is set up as an awkward individual who has a really short temper. His deep seated insecurities cause him to frequently lose it in front of customers and generally bring down the reputation of the barber shop he works at.
Things go sour when he accidentally kills his boss after being fired and launches into a spiral of panic that causes him to try and cover up the accident rather than admit to it. What follows is a series of events each more ridiculous than the last as he goes around trying to make sure he isn’t caught.
Robert Carlyle is excellent in this film playing a character who is likeable despite all the horrific things he does. Barney is given the right dose of personality to make the audience root for him to succeed in getting away with these murders. It’s a thin line to walk to make a character like this relatable but a combination of the smart script and excellent performance puts this across well.
He is helped in this mission by his mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) who seems a lot more accepting of her son being a murderer than anyone really should be. This character is purposely larger than life but it’s believable that someone like this could exist. The way she conducts herself and the way she looks should be all too familiar to people who know Glasgow well enough. She does at time seem quite cartoonish but I suspect that’s the point and Emma Thompson always manages to keep her grounded enough that she never seems unbelievable.
One thing that works really well is the interactions between Carlyle and Thompson. Despite the fact that Emma Thompson is only 2 years older than him I never found myself questioning that she could be his mother. There’s a generational difference between the two characters that comes across really well. It also helps that Thompson plays Cemolina as being really overpowering where Carlyle has Barney come across as timid and naive. He seems almost childlike in his outlook which really helps things. Not to mention the excellent makeup which helps Thompson look far older than she really is.
To round all of this out Barney unwittingly finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation where he didn’t kill anyone. The circumstances of the crime seem similar enough to get the attention of Ray Winstone’s Holdall. This isn’t new territory for Winstone who is well practiced at playing this sort of tough guy role. There are few better than him at being physically intimidating with a distinctively unsettling voice. His character provides a great contrast with the meek Barney who is constantly leaned on to try to make him slip up and admit guilt.
Despite bringing nothing new to the table, Winstone is great here and provides some of the film’s most amusing moments as his Englishness puts him at odds with pretty much everyone he speaks to. It was clever to make him less likeable than Barney as it immediately makes Holdall feel like the villain despite the fact he is the one trying to solve the murder. His aggressive behaviour and selfish attitude make him far less likeable than the guy who kills people and does whatever he can to make sure that he gets away with it.
Holdall’s colleague June Robertson (Ashley Jensen) was a little too over the top for my tastes. Every line she had was practically yelled even when it wasn’t necessary. Some of the scenes between her and Winstone were really entertaining but on the whole her character was a little too ridiculous. That’s saying a lot as this film gets really ridiculous at points. In general the whole competitive police officer subplot felt a little unnecessary mostly because it seemed distanced from the main narrative and seemed so much sillier than everything else.
This film is definitely very good at comedy. There are lots of laughs throughout; most of which stem from the Glaswegian dialect. Every other sentence contains some form of profanity and a mood swing is never far away. It might be something that doesn’t appeal to people outside of Scotland but I very much appreciated the authenticity of the whole thing as even the random chatter felt real. It all definitely feels unique and it’s great to have the cultural background approached in such a way. Barney’s situation getting increasingly more ridiculous as time went on only adds to the overall charm of the film.
Despite a propensity to occasionally go a bit too over the top this is a really good first outing for Robert Carlyle in the director’s chair.
He plays the character of Barney really well and gives him an endearing enough personality to make the audience root for him to get away with the awful things he does. The film creates an effective contrast with Ray Winstone’s Holdall who is put across as the villain despite the fact that he is the guy trying to solve the murders. Barney is meek and lacking self confidence where Holdall is aggressive and selfish so right away an effective hero/villain relationship is created.
Emma Thompson is impressive as Barney’s mother Cemolina. She is larger than life to the point of cartoonish but it works really well within the context of the story. She is a very overpowering presence where Barney is timid and naive. There is almost no age gap between the two actors but they do manage to seem like mother and son.
The internal rivarly between Holdall and Ashley Jensen’s June Robertson is the only part of the film that didn’t quite work for me. This subplot felt like an unnecessary diversion and I wasn’t a fan of how massively over the top June was. It wasn’t terribly handled but felt superfluous considering how strong the main story was.
I found this film to be very funny. The Glaswegian dialect and realistic sounding dialogue really helped the conversations people were having feel real. Every other line contained some sort of profanity and the random chatter was always engaging and hilarious to listen to. Couple this with the increasingly ridiculous situations as Barney finds himself getting deeper into his problem and you have the makings of a really funny film.