The Legend of Barney Thomson is the directorial debut of the much-loved actor Robert Carlyle, soon to be seen in T2: Trainspotting, set in his native Scotland and a joy to behold. Well, certainly if you enjoy the absurdist Irvine Welsh school of Scottish black comedies, but probably not if you don’t go for profane and slightly manic farces.
Even if you don’t, this is worth watching for yet another gem of a performance by one of our greatest living actresses, the estimable Emma Thompson (with P), who demonstrates once and for all that her range extends well beyond middle class ladies from the Home Counties, in this case to include an ageing bewigged bingo-loving chain-smoking sweary Glaswegian serial killer and mother of Carlyle’s eponymous anti-hero (in real life there are just two years between them.)
In defence of Carlyle’s casting decisions, there are a few older actresses who get gorgeous cameos so I doubt if any would begrudge Ms Thompson gaining a few false wrinkles to play a character 20 years older than her real age, particularly since she nails the Weegie accent and probably a few thousand Weegie lives. She is truly magnificent, one of several jewels in this film.
But I digress. Barney Thomson is an introverted 50 year old bachelor barber who is about to be sacked because he has no line in patter to entertain the customers. Worse, he rants at them at regular intervals, such that they begin taking their business elsewhere. He has no woman, other than his mother, and no life to speak of. He is truly one of life’s mediocrities, the sort of whom Salieri declared himself the patron saint in Amadeus.
Around the city, parcels of human body parts turn up at the homes of relatives of the deceased, while the police are officially “baffled” and cannot locate the perpetrator or the remaining human cuts, particularly Ray Winstone‘s thick cockney Detective Inspector Holdall. How Holdall came to be in Glasgow is not recorded, but he is not best appreciated by Chief Superintendent McManaman (Tom Courtenay), who gives the job of delivering justice in this case to the aggressively competitive Detective Inspector June Robertson (Ashley Jensen, whom I recently saw in a very different role in The Lobster.)
Meanwhile, Thomson gets into a barney with his immediate boss, Wullie Henderson (Stephen McCole), who in the course of an accidental slippage ends up dead with a pair of scissors in his chest. Perhaps most people would go to the police, but Barney senses his sacking would be a motive so he wraps up the body, tries unsuccessfully to avoid dim-witted friend Charlie (Brian Pettifer), picks up some of his mother’s friends in full voice, but finally gets the body to mother’s flat. She barely turns a hair. In fact, to his shock he later discovers she has neatly compartmentalised the body into cling-film wrapped morsels and frozen them.
As the police investigation slowly gets off the ground and eventually twigs that Thomson is so nervous he responds to questions in a strangulated squeak, lightening strikes twice: Thomson accidentally kills another colleague, Martin Compston‘s Chris after Chris twigs he killed Wullie. So begins the same cycle, the discovery that cutting up bodies is less than easy, and that there are a multiplicity of body parts in mother’s chest freezer.
Even Barney can’t avoid being struck between the eyes with the truth that his mother is luring men to her flat for sex, killing them then taking coach trips to the highlands and islands to post their parts back, triggering an interrogation of mum’s sordid past and who Barney’s real father is. Families – who’d have ’em? Just as mum is mocking Barney’s feebleness when she keels over and dies of a heart attack. Bad things come in threes, it seems.
But Barney’s luck takes a turn for the better as owner of the barber’s shop James Henderson (James Cosmo) takes a liking to Barney and promotes him; after a close shave at Chris’s flat the police officially suspect Chris of having perpetrated the murders and done a runner; and even when they panic him into chasing his mother’s body back to the remote loch where she wanted to be buried, they are so intent on outdoing one another that mayhem ensues. In the shootout, Barney is the only survivor and the truth dies with the dumb coppers, while the Chief Super is sure they will catch up with Chris very soon…
Doubtless this is a tall tale Barney tells to many a customer in the barber’s shop thereafter, to which they would reply, “yeah, sure, anything you say Barney” – but they sure fill the shop thereafter, and doubtless Barney inherits the shop and lives to a ripe old age leading a quiet life with at least one memory worth preserving.
Carlyle’s film, based on the novel The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson by Douglas Lindsay, is richly entertaining, even if it will be too rich for some palates. It’s laugh out loud funny on many occasions, which I find a distinct rarity these days. Its cast is uniformly excellent and I can’t think of anything to say against it, other than that it gets a bit silly towards the end. And I am sooooo looking forward to going back to Glasgow in a week or so – but hopefully not to accidentally kill any lurking barbers.