Best known for his role in the feel-good comedy The Full Monty, Scottish actor Robert Carlyle more typically plays unsavoury lowlifes as he did so memorably in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. He makes his directorial debut with the black comedy The Legend of Barney Thomson, and does double duty as its titular star, a downtrodden barber in working class Glasgow. Sneered at by his coworkers and unpopular with customers, the hapless Barney accidentally kills his boss and then makes the terrible decision to make the body disappear. Unfortunately for this natural born klutz, there is a serial killer presently at work in the city, and once a police inspector named Holdall (the great Ray Winstone) asks the ever-so-nervous Barney some questions about his boss’s disappearance, the cop is convinced he’s found the killer.
Barney is a momma’s boy – and what a momma he’s got. A foul-mouthed bingo addict who’s a tough-as-nails slag with no redeeming features, Cemolina (Emma Thompson) finds out about Barney’s jam and takes charge with ruthless efficiency. But Barney’s continuing ineptitude, a second death at the barbershop, and a power struggle in the police department as Holdall gets outmaneuvered by a younger female detective who hates his guts, all combine into a satisfying recipe for morbidly gruesome fun.
Notwithstanding the frequent grotesqueries – such as the serial killer mailing body parts of his victims to horrified relatives – Legend should appeal to most broad-minded fans of British cinema. Carlyle has set his film in a rough blue-collar milieu, but manages to show the characters’ foibles without being patronizing. The film maybe isn’t quite as funny as it thinks it is, but the quirky tone is consistent and there is an internal logic to the plot and the behaviour of the main characters.
The impressive lead performances occasionally overpower the sometimes-routine storyline, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you have actors as great as Carlyle and Winstone anchoring a black comedy that aspires to some social realism. But the real eye-opener here is the previously prim Emma Thompson, who is shockingly unpleasant but never cartoonish in a role that is a million miles away from her work in Harry Potter and Sense and Sensibility.
The Legend of Barney Thomson ***
Stars Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone
Directed by Robert Carlyle
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