Edinburgh Review: ‘Legend of Barney Thomson’ Serves Sweeney Todd-Style Slice of Glasgow Life

Edinburgh Review: 'Legend of Barney Thomson' Serves Sweeney Todd-Style Slice of Glasgow Life
Edinburgh Review: 'Legend of Barney Thomson' Serves Sweeney Todd-Style Slice of Glasgow Life

Robert Carlyle is a patron of the Edinburgh Film Festival, so it’s apt that his debut feature as a director should open this year’s festival in Scotland’s capital. Beyond the boon of a film by a local hero, with a local setting, it’s also an opener with broad audience appeal that many have felt the fest has, of late, lacked.

I’ve been wondering what had happened to Carlyle; unless you’ve been watching “Stargate Universe” or “Once Upon A Time” on US television, you’d think that the great Scottish actor with his own special brand of febrile intensity and menace had hung up his hat. Well, he’s back on the big screen, on both sides of the camera for the first time. And his absence from the front line seems to have brought his mellow side to the fore; if “mellow” is a macabre comedy whose villain is named the Body Parts Killer.

Carlyle is Barney, a barber in the rough and ready East End of Glasgow. As he tells us himself, he’s a dull chap, lacking in charm, his life rooted in mediocrity. “Every barber has his quirk – except me,” he declares. His fellow barbers are more blunt, describing their colleague as a “haunted tree”. His mother, aging good-time girl Cemolina (Emma Thompson), brutally declares that she’s never seen the point of him.

At first, it’s tempting to think that Barney’s grey veneer is the perfect cover for the serial killer blithely sending body parts to the families of his victims; a Scottish Sweeney Todd, if you will. The reality is more amusing, as an accidental killing makes this big-time loser the number one suspect of the Cockney copper in charge of the case (Ray Winstone). Turning to his mother for help, Barney gets a lot more than he bargained for.

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Based on the novel “The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson” by Douglas Lindsay, this is very funny, often enjoyably twisted (an early jaw-dropping shot of a penis arriving in the post is gloriously trumped later in the film), with occasional shards of pathos hinting at the grim reality of its social milieu.

But it also veers towards heavy-handedness, particularly as it deals with a local oddball who thinks he knows Barney’s secret, and the squabbling between detectives under pressure to catch the killer; of these, Tom Courtenay is underused as the police chief, and Ashley Jensen woefully miscast, trying far too hard to match Winstone’s career-honed and probably innate proficiency with expletives. Nor does Carlyle exercise as much control as he might over pacing, a fact that isn’t helped by an overly intrusive soundtrack.

That the film is ultimately so enjoyable comes down to the script, the director’s evocative but un-oppressive feel for his locations – Carlyle and cinematographer Fabian Wagner give a heightened, almost fable like sheen to this world of pubs, social clubs, dog tracks and tenements – and for the skill of the lead performances.

Cemolina is a throwback to some of the comic characters of Thompson’s early career, in which she was largely viewed as a comedienne. With makeup creating a horror show of fake tan and wrinkles, the actress is hilarious as the bouffant-haired, foul-mouthed harridan who treats her son like a doormat and is worryingly unfazed when he brings his troubles to her door. A scene in which fur-coated mum, son and black-bagged corpse are squeezed into an elevator, as she attempts to get some Tic Tacs into her mouth, is a highlight, though every time Thompson opens her mouth is a treat.

In a sort of reverse casting, the man who has played some of the edgiest and scariest characters of recent years, not least Begbie in “Trainspotting,” is really quite endearing as the innocent who only wants to continue with his mundane life.

Carlyle’s decision not to have his cast dilute their accents, neither Cockney nor Glaswegian, will be a challenge for some (will this go the way of some of Ken Loach’s films, adopting English subtitles?). But if you can tune in, the language and delivery are often a joy, not least when Barney, eager to dispose of some unwanted limbs in someone else’s kitchen, bemoans to his mum, “His freezer’s too wee.”

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