BLACK comedies are tricky things to pull off as Robert Carlyle proves with The Legend of Barney Thomson, his tonally and stylistically scattershot directorial debut about a Glaswegian barber (Carlyle) who becomes the prime suspect in the hunt for a local serial killer.
It will perhaps impress indulgent festival audiences easily pleased by groaning Glaswegian banter, faux outrageousness and the sight of Emma Thompson subsumed by crone make-up and fag smoke, but whatever Carlyle is going for doesn’t translate into the macabre laughs its jokily violent premise demands.
Reminiscent of Filth in its try-hard shock-Jock humour, but lacking the emotional complexity that helped that film transcend some of its myriad flaws, The Legend of Barney Thomson homes in on its titular protagonist as he’s forced to confront his own obsolescence as a middle-aged, charisma-free “big streak of piss”. Newly demoted to working at the back of the shop, and then let go altogether, Barney’s insignificance in the world is reinforced by his domineering mother, Cemolina (Thompson), who doesn’t see the point of her son beyond giving her lifts to bingo at the Barrowlands.
That all starts to change when he accidentally kills his boss. Committing the crime while a serial murderer with a penchant for posting body parts to the relatives of the victims is terrorising Glasgow, Barney soon finds himself under suspicion as the “Body Part Killer” while trying to cover up his own misdeeds. None of which is particularly funny. Carlyle opts for panto-style grotesquerie and heightened, anachronistic production design – the latter throwing up some beautifully framed shots of Glasgow, but unmooring the film in more problematic ways. Chintzy tower-block flats and characters who exist on a diet of fish suppers and cigarettes, for instance, suggest a 1970s or 1980s setting, but Angelina Jolie references and Kasabian posters on the walls time-stamp it as contemporary, making the film seem weirdly sloppy.
It doesn’t help that the plot twist is easily guessable, or that the characters are so thinly conceived. Carlyle’s Barney is a gurning presence, and as his mum, Thompson — who is only two years older than Carlyle’s (so he has absorbed some Hollywood filmmaking traditions) – is little more than an accent and a leopard-print coat. Ray Winstone’s appearance as a corrupt London copper who fancies Barney as a sort of “Demon Barber of Bridgeton”, meanwhile, makes this more Sweeney Plod than Todd.