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July 23, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia

Barney Thomson 4

Another character actor transcending a current scarcity of roles for middle-aged actors is long-time, BAFTA-winning Scottish star Robert Carlyle, who after decades in the industry has made his first foray into filmmaking with gruelling dark comedy The Legend of Barney Thomson which last month notably opened this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Based on Douglas Lindsay’s quintessentially Scottish novel ‘The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson’, the film offers Carlyle the opportunity to flex his muscles and take on a character quite dissimilar to his frenetic work in such films as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, though his clear effort to branch out to a new area of his career has left him moulding a hollow lesson in imitation.

Carlyle plays the titular Barney Thomson, a hapless, milquetoast barber whose discernible lack of ‘patter’ leaves him wholly devoid of both friends and a client base. He does, after all, pride himself on only knowing two haircuts: short back and sides, and back and sides. Set in an indistinct Glasgow where a serial killer is on the loose, boxing up his victims’ body parts and mailing them to their families, the film immediately sets out to depict Barney as an easily corruptible victim of a dark society.

When a verbal altercation with his boss – threatening him with a career destroying demotion – turns physical and inadvertently deadly, Barney finds himself stumbling headfirst into the world of serial murder, where his half-hearted attempts at covering his tracks attracts the attentions of gruff Detective Inspector Holdall, played exactly to cockney stereotype by Ray Winstone.

As his sanity quickly begins to unravel, Barney turns to his foul-mouthed, chain-smoking mother Cemolina (a raucous, unrecognisable Emma Thompson, complete with aged make-up and full Scottish brogue) for help in abetting his crimes, though theirs is a volatile relationship that threatens to expose even more truths that they originally intended.

Freely borrowing from the Coen Brothers’ 1996 crime classic Fargo, but crucially misappropriating that film’s gently haunting tone, Carlyle’s directorial debut combines a sadistic sense of humour with a muddled approach to characterisation, settling for base-level innocuousness as a result. Having peppered a résumé working with a string of notable filmmakers, Carlyle has a clear knack for sculpting performances, which he does to some degree of success (however much of Thompson’s crinkly, emasculating matriarch teeters on caricature), yet not enough depth of thought has gone into the direction.


The production reeks of the typicalities of a first feature: an amateurish overreliance on establishing shots and cultural landmarks (The Barrowlands and Shawfields dog track feature prominently) and a stylistic experimentation that isn’t of a piece with the rest of the film.

This extends to Carlyle’s directing – and indeed Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s script, which is awash with splatterings of Irvine Welsh and Guy Ritchie without developing a sense of style of his own.

It’s easy to forget that a first feature is not exactly a simple opportunity for artistic expression, but if your film anchors around largely unlikable characters and an affectless plot, as well as an emotion-free protagonist guiding you through the murk, then it’s hard to figure out what the ultimate point of it all is.

The Legend Of Barney Thomson is released in UK cinemas on July 24th

Edward Frost