“Barney Thomson,” a Glasgow-set ensemble crime comedy rocking so many strong brogues that it’s best watched with subtitles, may be the most Scottish film to wash up on American shores since “Trainspotting.” For the record, that’s a compliment, especially since a Scottish passport is no more required to appreciate this salty dog than New York City citizenship is required to enjoy the (twentieth century) films of Woody Allen. Adapted from Douglas Lindsay’s novel The Legend of Barney Thomson, The Legend of Barney Thomson, “Barney” is the directorial debut of proud Scotsman Robert Carlyle, who’s best known for playing the unspooled misfits of “The Full Monty” and, yep, “Trainspotting.” Here he tamps down his usual fire as the titular character, a middle-aged, mullet-sporting barber widely described as having undergone a “charisma bypass.”
“This is the story of what happens when you move chairs,” he says in an introductory voiceover that would be perfectly folksy if it weren’t accompanied by a close-up of a severed penis. What’s that, ye say? Aye, with a greasy floor, poor scissors safety habits, and a temper management issue, Old Barney lands himself in a wee spot of “Sweeney Todd” trouble when his boss tries to give him his jotters (that’s “fire him,” for those who didn’t have a Glaswegian grandmother like mine). Next thing you know, he’s driving to bingo with a corpse in his car trunk and an unlikely accomplice in Cemolina (Emma Thompson), his leopard coat-clad, lipstick-smeared harridan of a mum, who’s a little too adept at getting him out of this jam. A true Job in Tartan clothing, Barney learns that this accidental offing dovetails with a serial killer who’s been mailing bits of his victims back to their families. When he panics during a perfunctory police interview, he becomes the primary suspect in a widespread investigation led by Tom Courtenay (“45 Years”), Ashley Jensen (“Ugly Betty”), and Ray Winstone (every British gangster film made since 1980) – possibly the most inept, ill-tempered coppers this side of Keystone. Case in point: As carnage mounts all around them, Jensen and Winstone hilariously keep their focus on their in-house rivalry. (“Spare me your women’s intuition,” she spits at him while he fumes.)
For a first-time director, Carlyle’s filmmaking is remarkably assured; all his years in front of the camera seem to have lent him a shorthand with actors and a terrific style. Clocking in at ninety-six minutes and steeped in a lurid red, this is pleasantly overstuffed with shaggy-dog sidebars about “Scottish Gothic”-style supporting characters who recall the Coen Brothers’ most memorable curmudgeons. Best is Thompson. Freed from the starchy roles that are her bread and butter these days (go with the pun!), she slips gleefully into semi-retired prostitute Cemolina with a strangely suggestive stoop, an uneven bouffant wig, and a heap of prosthetics. (She’s only two years older than Carlyle in real life.) With her brassy manner and even brassier balls, she’s resolutely unfazed by such jobs as stowing her son’s superior’s body parts in the deep freezer after butchering and labeling them. (“I label everything,” she says blithely.)
Though set in the present, everything and everyone here seems detached from the time-space continuum. Landlines abound, people sway to early 1960s pop music in the pubs and in their cars, and furniture and fashions could be crafted by a Douglas Sirk well into his second bottle of whiskey. You get the sense these lads and lasses have stubbornly refused to let any but the most pervasive elements of the twenty-first century into their daily lives. (Read: Angelina Jolie celebrity references.) Even the ending – which, rushed and jumbled, is the film’s only serious stumble – adheres to a syncopation that’s as appealing as it is dour. It’s as if the whole film takes its cues from Barney himself, whose slow-moving, snarling deadpan is funnier than it should be, given his fundamental lack of an inner light. There may be no improvement of the human condition to be found here, but there’s a pervasive solidarity – like a ratty sofa whose dilapidation is inseparable from its coziness.
This originally appeared on Signature.