Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle) is, in his 50s, wifeless, childless and largely friendless, his only social life revolving around the occasional chat with local loser Charlie (Brian Pettifer) and the strained relationship with his harridan of a mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson), who views him as a free taxi service and unwelcome distraction from bingo. All he has to cling to is his loyalty and professionalism in his decades-old position as barber in a small family concern. But even here, his status is slipping, as his lack of ‘patter’ with the customers means that he is being moved further and further away from his old prestige position in the window. His anger and frustration lead him to a fatal blunder, and soon dogged copper Inspector Holdall (Ray Winstone) is on his trail, as Barney finds himself a suspect in an ongoing serial killer case.
Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut is the kind of low/mid-budget black farce that the British film industry seems determined to flog to the general public (think Deadly Advice, The Young Poisoner’s Handbook), kind of like a Brian Rix number with frozen body parts. It’s too comically broad to work along the lines of Shallow Grave, too dark to work as broad comedy and just never really flies. Part of the problem is that it’s built around a character who, the script reminds us, is devoid of charm, and, as played by Carlyle, exudes a kind of whining ‘why me?’aura. So while the plot contrives to elaborately humiliate and persecute Mr Thomson, it’s still hard to feel too much sympathy for a man who doesn’t seem to care much about anybody else, or indeed, whether he is liked, which is not an accusation that could be levelled at The Legend of Barney Thomson, the film. On the contrary, TLOBT exudes a certain desperation to be liked, it’s full of outré bits of ‘funny’ business, sweary old ladies and vivisection humour. We’re barely started on the voice-over-heavy opening sequence before we get a severed cock on screen, to be followed later with a scene built around an arse on the chief inspector’s desk. Likewise, Ray Winstone’s cockney rozzer schtick seems to be here because people like his cockney rozzer schtick, and regardless of whether it belongs in this film. Which I’m not entirely convinced it does. And there’s an increasing unreality about the plotting, which becomes more and more contrived as the coincidental serial murders and unlikely accidental deaths start to pile up, which would be fine, if it didn’t undermine all the Woman’s Realm and fag butt verisimilitude that much of the dialogue and production design is straining for.
On the plus side you have Emma Thompson having a ball as the foul Cemolina, surrounded by a great cast of solid character players. Glasgow is smartly used as a backdrop, and it’s beautifully framed and lit, with a well-achieved shabby, seen-better-days aesthetic. On the whole, though, it’s frustrating. There’s a fair few nice lines here and there, and I wonder how the source novel reads, because a scene at a funfair where Charlie (who has witnessed Barney trying to dispose of a body) uses this leverage to try to get a free hot dog and coke out of him in the most pathetic blackmail bid ever, gives a hint towards a sorrier, sadder film, one that used all these fine performers and crumbling urban detail to so something a bit more aching and singular, away from all these coppers with shooters and bagged bits of bum.
Watch the trailer: