By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
If it wasn’t for the severed penis in a box, Barney Thomson’s amiable voiceover might signal the start of a relaxed jaunt through the life of a working class stiff in Glasgow. Alas, there is that severed penis in a box. And an arm, and a foot, and pretty much every other part all coming through Royal Mail delivery. I don’t know if their rules expressly forbid the posting of body parts from murder victims; if not it’s probably taken as a given. The Legend of Barney Thomson, a dark comedy set in the world of Glasgow barbers and bingo, is the directing debut from venerable Scottish actor Robert Carlyle. He also takes on the title role in a film that hits a few highs amidst too many flat notes.
Carlyle’s Barney Thomson is the very epitome of a loser. He’s spent his entire working life offering two haircuts and gradually finding himself shifted into the corner of the shop. His problem; he has no chat. A quiet introverted figure, he lives for work mostly because he has nothing else. Unless you include an odd friend in Charlie (Brian Pettifer) and Cemolina, his smoking, drinking, hell raiser of a mother played with great panache by Emma Thompson. In a fit of desperation when he realises his job is under threat, he inadvertently sees off his boss with a pair of scissors. It’s an accident but his first thought is cover-up.
This brings the remaining big-hitter in the cast onto his scent. Ray Winstone’s London born copper Holdall is investigating a spate of killings across the city. Carrying bitter hatred for Glasgow and his job, he doggedly pursues Barney, a man guilty of murder, just not the crimes Holdall thinks he committed.
It’s the combination of mistaken identity and bungling body disposal that Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s screenplay mines for laughs. It finds a fair few as well. The best moments see Barney, played with mounting glee by Carlyle, frantically bouncing from one scrape to the next. Burial at sea in a rubber dingy weighted down with a giant slab offers a great bit of slapstick, and there’s something wonderfully grotesque about his attempts to hide from the cops in a dead man’s apartment while a neighbour mistakenly berates his sexual activity with an electrolarynx.
Cowan and McLaren offer up a number of one-liners – just watch the local kids referring to Holdall as Taggart, much to his consternation – but the real star is Thompson. She could almost be unrecognisable if she wasn’t so defiantly charismatic. With a thick Glasgow accent and affected posture, she drinks, smokes and swears her way through the role of Barney’s cruel mother. When not at the bingo, she even gets the chance to do a bit of grandstanding on his origins in a burnt out rubbish pile.
These are only temporary highs. At 96 minutes, the film still feels too long, dragged down by regular flat spots that dull the inspired bursts of black comedy. A number of set-ups don’t work, reliant entirely on Barney’s enjoyable patter. Scenes with Charlie fall into this category; bickering on fairground rides and an awkward haircut failing to seem like anything other than a self-conscious attempt to provoke laughs.
The biggest losers are the police. Winstone mutters and splutters his way around a stalling career, stuck with an aggressive competitor (Ashley Jensen), and a starkly rude boss (Tom Courtenay). It all feels a little sub-par Filth (2013). The general aimlessness that starts to permeate the police procedural scenes takes root, eventually growing over everything until the film resolves in a horrible deus ex machina, a sign that steam has well and truly run out.
A competent film throughout, The Legend of Barney Thomson has its moments, but they are just that. Even Emma Thompson isn’t quite enough.
The Legend of Barney Thomson is out Friday July 24th.