Robert Carlyle has long been one of the most underrated character actors of his generation. Probably still best known for his boozin’, swearin’, bottle of violence Begbie from Trainspotting, he’s one of those guys who just seems physically incapable of delivering a bad performance. He’s got an ability to make even the most absurd of characters feel natural. Which is why it was mildly concerning to learn that he’d dipped his toes into the directing pool with The Legend Of Barney Thomson. It’s always a cause for concern when an actor claims that all they’ve ever really wanted to do was direct. Usually that means that you’re about to watch an indulgent movie that proves they never should have walked to the other side of the camera. Thankfully, Carlyle is one of the exceptions to that unfortunate rule. His bloody cringe crime comedy debut is actually quite a fun little twisted romp. Not so much that you’d want him to retire as an actor, but enough that it wouldn’t be a loss to see him juggle two careers.
Carlyle himself stars as the titular Barney Thomson. He’s a burned out Glasgow barber for whom almost everything has gone wrong. His boxing career never went anywhere. His mother (a hilarious Emma Thompson disappearing behind prosthetics and a perfect Scottish accent) takes every opportunity she can to dig him a little deeper into a hole. He’s even about to lose his hair-chopping job, which is about the only thing that ever went right for him until this point. Yep, Thomson’s got it tough, but the police in Glasgow don’t exactly have it easy either. There’s a serial killer on the loose who has been sending various body parts to the police and victim’s relatives. Ray Winstone plays the detective in charge of the case, but he’s yet to turn up a decent lead. He finally decides to narrow in on Thomson as his prime suspect. He’s not far off either given that Thomson recently killed a man. Unfortunately that murder was completely unrelated to the serial killings. So, it’s a tough situation for both guys to find themselves in.
Undoubtedly a major reason why Carlyle succeeded so well with his directorial debut was because he was wise enough to keep his ambitions in check. This isn’t some desperate attempt to be taken seriously as an artist and nab some gold statues. Nope, it’s a fairly modest morbid crime comedy. The closest point of comparison would be Danny Boyle’s viciously Scottish comedy thriller Shallow Grave, which shares a similarly sick n’ slick sensibility. There’s also a little dash of Coen Brothers as well as the gothic character comedy and gallows humor of The League Of Gentleman and plenty of Irvine Welshian local dialogue. Carlyle wears his influences on his sleeve and proves that he’s got some chops as a director. He develops a showy, dirty, wide-angle heavy aesthetic that draws attention to the visuals without overwhelming the narrative. He also fills the film with a certain tragic humanity, even if it mostly plays as a bloody lark with body parts falling all over the place. Most of all, he gets the best out of his actors. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
The best performance comes from Emma Thompson. Wearing a collection of hilariously awful frocks and acting beneath a mountain of old age make-up, Thompson creates a hilarious overbearing mother. She’s a bit of a monster, yet at the same time has a heartbreakingly tragic core that prevents her from being mere caricature. It’s one of the best performances the actress has ever given and hopefully it won’t be the last time that she gets to create a character under prosthetics because she really digs in and disappears in a way that would be fun to see again. Ray Winstone does his usual tough guy routine, but in a role that’s so hilariously belittled by everyone around him that Winstone’s schtick feels sad and useless in intriguing ways. Ashley Jensen gets a hysterically harsh role that proves she’s capable a much more than her wonderful work on Extras, as does Brian Pettifer who shows far greater depth than he’s ever been allowed in sitcoms. At the center of it all, Carlyle provides a grounding force as the endlessly befuddled lead. He could easily out act anyone he shares the screen with, but wisely holds back and lets his castmates steal most scenes. It proves that as a director, he knew how to limit himself as an actor to suit his character, a skill that’s all to rare for those who walk both sides of that hyphenate.
The Legend Of Barney Thomson isn’t perfect. Despite giving all his characters the room to feel like real humans, it’s ultimately just a genre romp that’s going for little more than chuckles and cheap shocks. Likewise, the narrative gets a little too convoluted in the final stretch as Carlyle struggles too pull all the threads together without losing his oddball sense of naturalism. Thankfully, the problems are all fairly minor. Nothing that derails the movie, just issues that prevent it from being anything more than an enjoyably twisted bit of fun. Still, it’s not often that a nasty little crime comedy like this works so well, especially from a first time director. Hopefully it’s successful enough that he’ll get another crack at it. The guy clearly has some chops and it will be interesting to see them grow.