The Legend of Barney Thomson

My next review, I’m afraid to say, is somewhat of a public service announcement – please avoid The Legend of Barney Thomson at all costs. I feel bad to admit it, given I know at least one or two people involved in the production, but I can’t think of a worse film I’ve seen for quite a long time. I actually feel embarrassed to say that anyone abroad may see this and consider it an example of Scottish film. As the first film to be directed by star Robert Carlyle, it seems to be attempting to capture the darkness and black humour of Scottish hits like Trainspotting and Filth, although it comes nowhere close to capturing the enjoyment of those films, especially Trainspotting, that tragically starred Carlyle in one of the roles to make him well-known, Begbie. I’m sure Robert is a nice fellow, and plenty of others involved are too, but this is a mean-spirited, awful excuse for a comedy film. Any attempt at a joke seems to rely on an audience that finds the use of a swear word hilarious. Disturbingly, that seemed to appeal to a large amount of the audience at my screening.

Black comedy is a genre I very much appreciate, but it does have to capture a tone of being somewhat out-there. Rushmore would be a perfect example of a black comedy done extremely well, a film that almost seems like it is set in an alternate universe. Barney Thomson doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be grounded in reality or set in a farcical and wacky realm. It’s this inconsistency of tone, and an implausible story lazily written, that takes a cast that could have made an extremely engaging film and creates a pile of nasty mess.

After an excruciatingly long narration over an introductory montage, the film started relatively well, and, if it had kept going the way it seemed to have been, may have turned out to be an adequate piece. But unfortunately, after the first five minutes, everything goes severely downhill. The plot revolves around cowardly and anti-social Barney Thomson (over-acted by Carlyle, directing himself) who is told by his hair salon boss Wullie (Stephen McCole, showing off talent and demanding screen presence as much as in previous roles but unfortunately not given enough to do here) that he is being fired after 20 years of service for not having “patter”. In an accident that seems like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, Barney accidentally kills Wullie, and finds himself a suspect in the murder case by a disgruntled police officer (Ray Winstone). Enlisting the help of his ex-prostitute mother (Emma Thompson), Barney has to avoid being uncovered and ends up in over his head trying to keep his secret, in a plot that feels like it is making itself up as it goes along.

There is a large amount of British acting talent that pops up in the film, James Cosmo, Martin Compston, Tom Courtenay, Ashley Jensen and Barbara Rafferty. They are mostly fine, but none leave an impression – surprising, given how much I have enjoyed all of these actors in previous roles. Emma Thompson has garnered some praise for her performance – it is admirable to see Emma showing no vanity whatsoever but I honestly preferred her performance (and accent) in Brave. It seems a little too stereotypical of a performance and far too selfish and hostile of a character for us to care about her, particularly in her last scene, which I will have the decency not to spoil, but it cements her vile nature, followed by a scene where we are supposed to feel sorry for her. It’s this inconsistency and unnecessary mean-spirited tone that makes Barney Thomson almost unbearable to watch.

The film features a mean-spirited manner throughout. I have no problem with this if it is done well, and for a point, but it does not add anything to the humour, and disrupts any attempt the film makes to get us to care about these characters. Episodes of Fawlty Towers even did a better job of it in just 30 minutes than this does in a seemingly never-ending 90. Implausibility also runs through the film, and laziness, so that no actual jokes are made, or any creativity is shown. Being dark and dreary, and thrusting Glasgow scenery into the background and foreground, does not make it a Glaswegian film. Or a good film. Every effort the film makes for a laugh heavily relies on the use of a swear word, which is the most pathetic thing that can be done in a comedy picture. As I say, this tragically appealed to some of the crowd in Glasgow, but take this down south to England or Wales, or as far as America or Australia, and it will not have anywhere near the same humorous impact on the audience. The reason we have no film industry is because we can’t make films that will appeal outwith this country. It is shameful and humiliating.

The sad reality is because almost everyone in the Scottish film sector will know someone else involved in this picture, they will compliment it regardless of what they actually think, and as a nation we will keep making drivel like this. Creative Scotland, who funded this abomination with an investment of £500,000, and Robert Carlyle should be utterly ashamed of themselves – particularly as the latter brushed off Scottish filmmakers’ complaints about the former being difficult to work with as he described the funding process for this film as “easy”. I have respect for all the cast involved in this, and could see they were trying hard, but this was appalling, and the politics behind why and how it was made are even worse. If Creative Scotland is going to hand half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money to one of their pals, they could at least make sure the end product will be worth it. I wouldn’t mind so much, but this is a frequent occurrence with them, and the eventual creations, like this film and Under the Skin, are utterly atrocious. The very fact that this opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival makes my blood boil – surely they could have found a better British film than this?

An embarrassingly terrible effort from a Scottish talent I previously very much admired, sadly featuring participants I very much like. If Scottish film carries on the way of Barney Thomson, I have serious fears for its future.


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