The Legend of Barney Thompson review: mother cuts to the quick

Robert Carlyle’s pitch-black murder comedy is a triumph for a deglamourised Emma Thompson, as the ultimate parent from hell

The Legend of Barney Thompson
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Director: Robert Carlyle
Cert: 15A
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ray Winston
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

Pitch for disaster-themed TV show: When Actors Makes Directorial Debuts. Too often, the thespians concerned get out the Klaxons for My Big Issue- Driven Movie. Audiences duly applaud the worthiness of the project and go home feeling thoroughly unentertained.

Longtime movie punters might reasonably have expected actor Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut to nestle in this category: Carlyle, after all, cut his teeth on Ken Loach movies.

However, The Legend of Barney Thompson, a dark comedy concerning a hapless barber-turned-killer, turns out to be a genuinely dark comedy, replete with bumbling, botching and grotesquery, and not a "dark comedy" as in marketing speak for comedy without laughs.

Barney Thompson (Carlyle) is a charmless, hapless barber who, following an accident with scissors, becomes a charmless, hapless Sweeney Todd. Unhappily, his bumbling attempts at covering up his crime – dogs duly chase and bark at his car-boot – coincide with tough copper Ray Winstone’s investigation into a prolific Scottish serial killer.


Help is at hand in the form of Cemolina (Emma Thompson), Barney’s blousy, pistol-mouthed mother, who chops up Barney’s victim and puts the various carefully labelled parts in the deep freeze: “I label everything,” she barks at her bewildered son. Twists and shenanigans ensue as comically styled body parts continue to surface.

Barney Thompson’s Glasgow is consistently and impressively timeless: this is a world of dog tracks and ballrooms. The barbershop is old-school enough to have pictures of boxers on the wall.

It helps, too, that great actors tend to know other great actors. There are lovely moments with Winstone, his office rival (Ashley Jensen) and his increasingly miffed superior (Tom Courtenay). But it is Thompson who steals the show with a series of dagger looks and a hilariously sweary confessional.

Oscar-winning prosthetics master Mark Coulier ensures that the divine Ms T doesn’t look remotely divine: you’d never guess there were only two years between Thompson and her onscreen son.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic