In one of the more memorable scenes of Robert Carlyle’s directorial début, the heads of a Glasgow police branch huddle around the severed buttocks formerly attached to the most recent victim of Scotland’s latest serial killer; these having only recently been posted to the victim’s next of kin. The topic: that forensics have served them up on a plate currently in circulation by the office’s cafeteria. This grim scenario summarises the tone adopted throughout The Legend of Barney Thomson. A film whose approach removes the time ingredient from the classic formula to deliver both tragedy and comedy in equal, simultaneous helpings.
Carlyle stars as the titular barber turned accidental killer in a turn the complete antithesis to his most recognisable role – as the volatile Begbie in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – more prone to cold sweats than violent outbursts. That said, there’s a subtly vicious undercurrent to Carlyle’s performance. Maybe it’s in Barney’s occasional outbursts at customers, or that Carlyle has never quite been able to shake the clinging image of his most iconic role. Either way, this serves as a quiet hint of things to come.
Carlyle is flanked on each side by two magnificently exaggerated performances. Most notably Emma Thomson as Barney’s vile crone of a mother. Thomson – unlike many before who’ve tried earnestly and failed (Simon Pegg), and those who crashed somewhere between Perth Scotland and Perth Australia (Isla Fisher) – manages to nail the accent, giving a necessary believability to an otherwise pantomime character. On the opposition is Ray Winstone’s scenery-chewing police detective, always one more throbbing vein away from a heart attack, hot on the heels of the killer at large. With each of these two breathing down Barney’s neck, his worn demeanour becomes increasingly understandable.
In the director’s chair Carlyle is a natural, managing off the bat to demonstrate both technical flare and a gift for comedic storytelling. The film’s style – a blood red slapstick which has had Carlyle dubbed the “Tartan Tarantino” – is matched by the it’s sickly palette, which is in turn countered to often humorous effect by the ol’-timey classic soundtrack – think ‘Blue Bayou’ to the disposal of a body in a loch. All this builds to a refreshingly whole feeling film with character to spare.
And, of course, this character is done no damage by its setting. Glasgow’s tourist industry isn’t done many favours, with the film swerving the spires and botanical gardens for dingy tenements and the unmistakeable neon spread of the Barrowlands. This, however, does wonders for the film’s grittier tone, and lends some pleasing ‘I can see my house from here’ moments.
Barney Thomson feels like a film that would be as comfortable onstage as it would onscreen. This is by no means a negative, as almost everything comes together perfectly and, overlooking one slightly out of place plot development – which still feels somewhat plausible when looked at within the film’s self-contained staging – creates a cohesive, complete piece as it ramps swiftly from its small beginnings to its final, over-the-top Glaswegian standoff. Skirting the common bleeding heart dramas of actor-turned-director débuts, Carlyle’s blood-splattered ode to his city is less love letter, more Glasgow kiss.