Fifty, friendless and in thrall to his foul-mouthed domineering mother, things couldn’t get much worse for Barney Thomson (Robert Carlyle). Once Bridgeton’s top barber, he lacks the banter and small talk to attract the punters and his days are filled with petty humiliations, his boss Wullie (Stephen McCole) describing him as hanging over the customers “like a haunted tree.”

But when Wullie fires him, something snaps inside him and the mild-mannered Barney kills him, accidentally stabbing him during a scuffle. Stuck with Wullie’s corpse, Barney is forced to turn to his fearsome mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) for help in disposing of the body, bringing him to the attention of gruff English policeman Detective Inspector Holdall (Ray Winstone) who’s hunting a serial killer posting dismembered body parts from tourist beauty spots around Scotland to the loved ones of the unfortunate victims. But as Barney’s life spirals out of control, dark secrets and bodies starting to pile up, is a boy’s best friend alwas his mother?

Opening with a jaunty voiceover and a grisly montage of severed, dripping body parts (an arm, a foot, a cock…) being delivered by an unsuspecting postman, Glaswegian black comedy The Legend Of Barney Thomson marks a confident, if not wholly satisfying feature directorial debut for star Robert Carlyle who may have called in every favour he ever had to people his film with a wonderfully eclectic cast, old mate Winstone amusing as a frustrated English cop who hates living in Glasgow, a manic Ashley Jensen as Winstone’s fast-tracked rival and a wonderfully foul-mouthed and angry turn from Tom Courtenay as their superior officer while Stephen McCole and Martin Compston are obviously having a ball as Carlyle’s fellow barbers.

If there’s a weak link, it’s Carlyle himself trying to juggle too many balls as both director and star. Making clever use of essentially a couple of streets around the Gallowgate and Shawfield Greyhound Stadium to give us his vision of a quaintly decaying Glasgow of bingo, pensioners and sudden death, Carlyle’s direction is assured but indistinct and it’s at it’s best when he gives his actors room to play, a scene where Courtenay, Winstone and Jensen examine a severed arse on a dinner plate a macabre joy.

As Barney meanwhile, Carlyle is somewhat mis-cast. A talented, versatile and charismatic actor, Carlyle has built a career playing outsiders; stripping unemployed steelworkers (The Full Monty), pioneering cannibals in the American West (Ravenous), space-exploring cowardly geniuses (Stargate Universe), bank robbers (Face) and pothead policeman (Hamish Macbeth) and every stripe of psycho from Cracker’s shaven-headed Albie to Trainspotting’s hard man Begbie. These characters may be many things but few are as mild, as fearful, as unconfident as Barney and sadly Carlyle’s just too mercurial a presence to convince as impotent, ineffectual sadsack Barney, veteran Scots actor Brian Pettifer, alternately sinister and pathetic as both Thomson’s friend and blackmailer would perhaps have been a better choice.

The Legend Of Barney Thomson may be Carlyle’s directorial debut, but it’s Emma Thompson’s film, owning every scene as Thomson’s grotesque mother, a hilariously vicious, vulgar flipside of her Nanny McPhee. Only two years Carlyle’s senior, Thompson is unrecognisable and completely convincing as a drunken, chainsmoking, prostitute in her 70s specialising in the GILF experience (Gran I’d Like to Fu…), a sociopathic monster who’s idea of parental love is to reveal to Barney “I’ve never seen the fucking point of you!” even as she dismembers Wullie’s body and hides him in her freezer, carefully wrapping and labelling each part.

A dark, funny, crowdpleasing opener to this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, the true legend of The Legend Of Barney Thomson is the fearsome, fantastic Emma Thompson.

Movie Review: The Legend Of Barney Thomson
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