The Legend of Barney Thomson – EIFF review
The Legend of Barney Thomson

Robert Carlyle stars in his directorial debut – the wonderfully dark-humoured and surprisingly sophisticated Edinburgh International Film Festival opening film, The Legend of Barney Thomson. Review by Alan Laidlaw

As an actor, Robert Carlyle has fashioned a career out of bringing a cheeky but dangerous likeability to any character he portrays. With that in mind it seems appropriate that his directorial debut, The Legend of Barney Thomson, should find itself fitting snugly into a similar mould.

Sitting down to watch a celebrated and accomplished actor take the plunge into the world of directing can provoke a strange sensation to glaze over you – a feeling which makes you whole-heartedly want to root for the film’s success. Because you’ve seen them spill their guts on screen before, but never in a manner that’s as exposing as committing your own individual vision to a piece of film. Thankfully, it took around 20 minutes of watching Barney Thomson for me to relax, uncross those fingers and toes and come to the realisation that Carlyle was genuinely on to a good ‘un.

The story, which is an adaptation of a book by acclaimed Scottish crime writer Douglas Lindsay, is based around the barber-cum-accidental serial killer Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle). After finding out that he’s getting sacked by his boss, they get into a tussle that ultimately ends in Barney stabbing and killing him with a pair of scissors. Time and time again, with the help of his cynical old mother, (Emma Thomson) Barney finds himself unintentionally adding to the body count in a haplessly comedic attempt to conceal the truth – while a bull-headed chief inspector (Ray Winstone) and his keen-eyed second in command (Ashley Jensen) come ever closer to solving the case.

It’s hard to decide if Barney Thomson is more comedic than it is macabre, often finding an engrossing cross-section between both in any given scene. The film, for the most part, is unnering in its tone, as you’ll naturally find yourself producing belly-laughs during scenes involving delimbed corpses and guilt-ridden monologues. Emma Thomson provides a huge portion of the laughs, nailing the broad Glaswegian drawl and the profane patter that accompanies it – serving as a wonderful mother-son double act with the high-strung mother’s boy figure who’s so colourfully played by Carlyle under the pressure of his own direction.

What may be particularly surprising to discover is that there’s an overwhelming sentimentality to this film; landmarks of Glasgow’s East End are singled out and paid homage to by Carlyle’s deliberate and sensitive directorial gaze – making them appear like great monolithic structures standing out majestically against the kitchen-sink-greyness of their surroundings.

With there being such an inextricable link to localised culture, humour and imagery, there’s a concern that a film like The Legend of Barney Thomson could wind up struggling to find the widespread audience that it so richly deserves.

Only time will tell whether the warm reception it received during the EIFF opening gala screening will be looked back on as being prophetic or anomalous.