EIFF 2015: ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson’ Review 1 31

eiff-2015-the-legend-of-barney-thomson

Opening this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival in darkly comic style is The Legend of Barney Thomson, the directorial debut of national treasure Robert Carlyle. He plays the titular Barney, an old-fashioned and unassuming 50-something barber who is becoming increasingly irrelevant in his industry and generally disliked by his colleagues because of his serious, un-chatty nature.

One day his quiet, relatively mundane life is turned upside when he accidentally becomes a killer. With a no-nonsense London detective (Ray Winstone) hot on his heels and his overbearing, sharp-tongued mother (Emma Thompson) to cope with, Barney’s life spins more and more out of control as the bodies start to pile up.

Jet-black comedy is a difficult thing to get right and for the most part Barney Thomson does exactly that. This is down to Carlyle’s astute direction and an often sharply funny script by Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren, matching colloquial Scottish humour with ridiculously over-the-top scenes of chopped off limbs and body disposal. You’ll know pretty quickly if it’s your cup of tea and if it is and you’re willing to just go with it then there’s much to enjoy.

Carlyle has assembled a great cast of local and not-so-local talent, with everyone from Martin Compston (Sweet Sixteen, TV’s Line of Duty) as Barney’s young gun fellow barber to Tom Courtenay as the police chief superintendent bewildered by the series of body parts being mailed to the victim’s family members, bringing real life to their characters.

Carlyle himself is tremendously soulful as the titular accidental serial killer, crucially bringing a lot of empathy and sympathy to a character that could have been utterly despicable in the hands of a lesser actor. Thompson steals the show as his sharp-tongued mother, with her array of garish outfits, spot-on Glaswegian accent, foul-mouthed putdowns and hilariously abrasive nature turning her into an unforgettable character. Despite the fact that Thompson is only two years older than Carlyle in real life, they make a convincing mother-son pair and both bring a gravitas and – largely thanks to a revealing scene about Barney’s past towards the end – even a sense of pathos to the piece.

The film also has a lot of fun with the idea of ineptitude, not just in the eponymous barber – although his lack of knowledge in serial killing can surely be forgiven – but in the cops bumbling around who are somehow always one step behind him, particularly a distractingly hammy Ashley Jensen as Winstone’s opportunistic rival officer. This is where the film drags its leg a little, simply because everyone seems a little too clueless to be truly believable. It also makes a few narratives missteps towards the film’s conclusion, including a final Western-inflected showdown of sorts that seems entirely out of place.

Carlyle has delivered a deliciously dark home-grown crime comedy, one that should tickle the funny bone of anyone who likes they’re humour on the ghoulish side and their characters idiosyncratic. It works best when it matches conversational humour with the macabre, showing off some of the most characterful areas of Glasgow not often shown on film as it goes, only losing some of its muster and energy when it ultimately tries to be more than it is. That said it’s worth the stumbles when the journey’s been so compellingly off-kilter. This is a startling, impressively eclectic debut from a legendary actor in his own right.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 205

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 230

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10