The advantages of having an A-lister interested in your screenplay are, of course, increased box office and (if you’re lucky and it’s Emma Thompson, not Keira Knightley) the involvement of a major talent in your cast.
The danger is that she may completely overshadow everything and everyone else on the screen. Unfortunately for Robert Carlyle, that is exactly what has happened to The Legend of Barney Thomson (known in some markets simply as Barney Thomson).
It’s a black comedy set in Glasgow, where loser Barney (Carlyle, who also directs) works in an old-style barber’s shop belonging to Wullie Henderson (Stephen McCole), and there just happens to be a serial killer on the loose. Barney has lived a life of almost stultifying mediocrity – all of which is about to change. When Wullie moves Barney to a barber’s chair further from the window for the second time and subsequently fires him, Barney inadvertently stabs him to death with a pair of scissors while pleading for his job. Terrified of being found out (not to mention losing his job for good), he bungles the clean-up, and when his hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-swearing, septuagenarian bingo-harpy of a mother Cemolina (Emma Thompson) accidentally discovers the body, he enlists her help in covering up the murder.
The police assume Wullie’s disappearance is connected to the serial killer (who has been posting body parts to the victims’ families), and Barney will do anything to protect his secret. It helps that the case is being investigated by two Detective Inspectors more interested in competing with each other than actually doing any detective work – Ray Winstone and Ashley Jensen, making her probably the only actor to stand up to Winstone’s tough guy since Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast – and their interchangeably bland sergeants. These four are supervised by a gut-bustingly inept Chief Superintendent (Tom Courtenay, whose every line is a master class in comic timing and delivery). DI Rebus these guys are not. Back behind his favourite chair in the window, though, Barney has other things to worry about.
The Legend of Barney Thomson is beautifully made – it is textured and gorgeous, stylish and velvety and worn like the brocade wallpaper of a run-down bingo palace. It smells of Glasgow gangster noir and Westerns and old, bum-worn leather. Its cast is excellent, its script frequently funny, and Carlyle himself has undeniable comic ability. But it just doesn’t hang together. It doesn’t work. The plot seems almost incidental, and when things do happen they are mind-numbingly predictable. For all the care demonstrably lavished upon it, it feels sadly empty and bereft of depth.
The film might have been less disappointing, oddly enough, were it not for the presence of the pitch-perfect Emma Thompson. In her 26-year film career Thompson has almost never put a foot wrong (Howards End cancels out Junior, let’s be honest), and Barney Thomson is no exception. As the most fascinating character in the film (one ends up wishing it was about her rather than her somewhat beige son), Cemolina demands to be played with scenery-chewing gusto, and Thompson delivers. She’s so good it’s distracting. Her portrayal is stellar and reptilian, yet believable; her Glaswegian accent is pretty much spot-on, and no one drops an F-bomb like this woman. But she dazzles – so much so that by comparison everything else seems dull and tarnished, and every minute she’s absent from the screen feels like a long wait for the Awesome Bus. On a wet night in February. In Glasgow.