This post is a joint book and film review. It’s not going to say that one is better than the other, but looks at what there is to recommend both of them, which, (short version of this review), I do. For those who don’t know, the film The Legend of Barney Thomson is now in cinemas across the country. It’s adapted from Douglas Lindsay’s 1999 novel The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, which itself has been re-published by Freight Books to tie in with the film’s release, and which has been renamed to reflect this.
Let’s start with the source material. The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson was the first of many Barney Thomson related books Lindsay wrote, including 7 novels, short stories, novellas and an ebook filled with those monsters du jour, zombies. The Legend of Barney Thomson, as it now is, is the first I have read of Lindsay’s work, but it has encouraged me to read more. It’s outrageous and reprehensible, in the best possible way, with recognisable stereotypes as well as original characters. It’s pulp fiction just as it should be, with the all important plot throwing the reader all over the place. Set in Glasgow, it focuses on ageing Bridgeton barber Barney Thomson who comes under suspicion from his co-workers, friends and the local polis as the body count mounts, apparently at the hands of a serial killer who posts body parts to the deceased’s loved ones from the coastal towns of Scotland. Is Barney guilty? That’s a question he has to ask himself.
The plot has more than a hint of Crime & Punishment about it as Barney carries round his anger, fear, shame and guilt everyday, expecting to be exposed yet determined not to be, and with a keen and suspicious policeman on his case. The comedy is pitch black, and genuinely funny which is not always the case when horror and comedy combine. Lindsay keeps things moving at a breathtaking pace, and manages to make you feel sympathy for Barney, usually just before yet another terrible event. He is a man in middle of the mother of all mid-life crisis, unsure of who he is and with no-one else who seems to care as he is overlooked and ignored by his nearest and dearest. The events which occur change his life for ever, and left me wanting to read more as I’m not sure where Lindsay will take Barney Thomson next.
The film version is the directorial debut of Robert Carlyle, who also stars in the lead role. But he is only part of a cracking cast which includes some of the finest Scottish actors from across the generations, from James Cosmo, Barbara Rafferty and Eileen McCallum to Martin Compston, Kevin Guthrie and Sam Robertson. Others include Ashley Jensen and Stephen McCole, and special mention must be made of Brian Pettifer as Charlie (an amalgamation of two of the book’s characters), and a terrific cameo from Tom Courtney as Chief Superintendent McManaman.
But this is a film which hangs on the three central performances, with Carlyle joined by Ray Winstone, as Glasgow hating cockney copper Holdall, and an incredible Emma Thompson as Barney’s overbearing (to put it mildly) mum, Cemolina. No-one does great Ray Winstone like Winstone himself, although many try, and here he is chewing scenery in fine style. We knew Thompson could do Glasgow from her unforgettable turn as Suzi Kettles in John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti, but I’m not sure we knew she could do disgusting and horrific quite like this. Imagine Nanny McPhee with a drink and Valium problem, and a voracious appetite for sex and destruction, and you’re nowhere close to the grotesque that is her ‘Cemolina’.
But this is Carlyle’s movie in more ways than one. As Barney, he takes a backseat to the grandstanding of Thompson and Winstone, but reminds us what a fantastic screen presence he is. All that suppressed rage, shame, guilt and self-loathing come together in Carlyle’s performance. There are close-ups on his face, particularly when he is being interviewed by the police, which are a masterclass in film acting. He plays Barney as a mix of Spud and Begbie, if you want an appropriate reference point; most of the time put upon and terrified at his own shadow, but increasingly likely to bouts of rage as he is pushed further and is increasingly ignored. More understated than you may expect considering the material, this is Carlyle at his very best.
As a director, Carlyle has said he wanted to film the Glasgow of his childhood, and the use of areas like Bridgeton Cross, Shawfield Stadium and the Saltmarket exemplify this. The film itself has the feel of the past, even though set in the present-ish day. There is a sepia tinge to the film, and Barney’s old burgundy barber’s jacket and thinning DA haircut mark him out as a man out of time, and give proceedings a dirty and downbeat feel which matches the black, black humour in evidence. There is also a weird edge to the film which is pleasingly never referred to or explained. A scene where Barney cuts Charlie’s hair is as bizarre as it is disturbing, and the bingo nights at the Barras and Cemolina’s soirees are equally odd. There are also scenes which are classic slapstick where Carlyle proves himself a dab hand at physical comedy, particularly when Barney loses a fight with a rubber dinghy. Here’s the trailer:
The differences between the book and the film are enough to make them stand alone, and are understandable in terms of the different forms. Losing or amalgamating characters from the book makes sense for a 90 minute film, and having the barber shop chat focus on boxing rather than Old Firm football is also a wise move. What you lose are a couple of characters who you miss once you have read the book, particularly Barney’s soap obsessed wife, Agnes. If you like your film comedy black then you should see The Legend Of Barney Thomson as it is a memorable addition to the genre, and a huge improvement to the similar The Voices which came out earlier this year. If you’re a fan of pulp horror fiction, then you should read the book as it’s been a while since I’ve read one which revels in its horrific subject matter with such glee. Or you could do what I did and do both. But, as it says at the top of the page, we do this so you don’t have to…
Here is the audio version of this review: