Tag Archives: black comedy

The Legend of Barney Thomson

The Legend of Barney Thomson
The Legend of Barney Thomson

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 July 2015

Distributor: Icon

Director: Robert Carlyle

Writers: Richard Cowan, Colin McLaren

Cast: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone

Canada, UK 2015

96 mins

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.

Mark Stafford

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The Voices

The Voices
The Voices

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 March 2015

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Michael R. Perry

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton and Jacki Weaver

USA, Germany 2014

103 mins

It’s no wonder that Marjane Satrapi’s directorial debut borrows so heavily from the comic genre. Her work to date has been entirely in that domain, with a number of graphic novels to her name. Most notable among them are twin novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis: The Story of a Return, which recount her experiences of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and her subsequent move to Vienna.

The transition to filmmaking happened with the adaptation of these two novels into the animated feature Persepolis, which, in the English-language version, featured the voices of Sean Penn and Iggy Pop. Satrapi co-directed and co-wrote the film, which went on to become a joint winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

The Voices is her next big project (there was a live-action adaptation of her novel Chicken with Plums starring Mathieu Amalric, but it had limited distribution outside of France), and it really is big, with Ryan Reynolds in the starring role – lending it serious box office muscle – and Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick among the supporting cast.

Reynolds plays Jerry, a worker at a bathtub factory with a sweet nature but severe mental health issues. His universe is as simple as a 50s sitcom, with his ‘aw-shucks’ demeanour and old-school-Americana surroundings inflected with pops of bubblegum pink. Life bumbles on quite merrily as he flits between warehouse work, his room above a deserted bowling alley and sessions with his sympathetic psychologist (Jacki Weaver). He also receives counsel from his two pets: a dopey, kind-hearted dog, Bosco, and an acerbic Scottish cat, Mr Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds), who take on the roles of angel and devil respectively. So far, so manageable.

Things take a darker turn when he falls for office vamp Fiona (Arterton) and, on a night out, ends up accidentally killing her. Having dispensed with his medication, Jerry falls into a maniacal tailspin, leading him to live in squalor among Fiona’s remains and submitting to the fiendish goading of a chorus now made up of Mr Whiskers and Fiona’s disembodied head.

The film is simultaneously horribly gory, terrifically funny and terribly sad; a combination which could be confusing in any other hands than Satrapi’s. It’s cartoon-like elements temper the horror: sound effects – from bones being sawed, to death blows being delivered – are heightened to the point just shy of adding ‘Pow!’-style captions, while the polished, stylised vision of Jerry’s world elevates the film from gritty horror to camp satire. Furthermore, the women are not simply victims. Weaver’s psychologist posits deeply logical, compassionate views on mental illness, self-doubt and spirituality, and Arterton’s character, in danger of being the arch bitch, redeems herself through humour. We are repulsed by Jerry’s crimes, despite being thoroughly subsumed into his mindset.

Coursing through all this is a dark, throbbing vein of black humour that brings life to each scene, starting from the film’s heart – the naïve, troubled Jerry in a game-changing performance from Reynolds – and ending in a surreal, celestial coda.

The Voices is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-Ray and Steelbook on 13 July 2015.

Lisa Williams

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