Hair-raising antics in the bad end of Glasgow

The Legend of Barney Thomson (15A)

The choral strains of Roy Orbison singing In Dreams contrasted perfectly with the grisly visuals of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986 but when Robert Carlyle tries the same thing here with Orbison’s Blue Bayou, it doesn’t have quite the same effect.

Why? Probably because Carlyle (directing as well as starring) is no David Lynch. And also, of course, because he’s plagiarising him.

A more obvious echo for this black comedy about a timid barber who has the unfortunate habit of accidentally killing people he works with is Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. The bloodletting may not be as fluid as in that film – at least until the last scene – but the tasteless wallowing in severed limbs is.

That last scene, where four people have guns trained on each other at the same time, called up another key source for me: Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. I’m sure we could describe that film (if not Tarantino’s entire oeuvre?) as blackly comic as well.


It’s not a genre I generally enjoy, the blackness usually making me disinclined to laugh. I had the same reaction here because Carlyle doesn’t have the qualifications to carry it off with the style of those he purports to imitate. What we get as a result is little more than a concatenation of stomach-churning vignettes, each more shocking than the last.

The film belongs to Emma Thompson. She’s stunning as Winstone’s elderly mother. (Do I hear Oscar noises?) Almost without trying she immerses herself in the character of a zoned-out woman who seems to be on a different planet to the rest of us as she casually trundles along to bingo sessions as the chaos unfolds around her. Her name, Cemolina, is as weird as everything else about her.

Ray Winstone is the bumbling cop, Holdall, on the trail of Carlyle. He’s also looking for a serial killer who’s been dismembering people in the back streets of Glasgow. (The identity of the killer is a startling surprise I won’t reveal.)

Brian Pettifer plays a Dylan Thomas lookalike who’s as unperturbed by the sight of a dead body as the rest of the cast. Tom Courtney is a police chief who gets little to do except shout in the truck driver language that makes up most of the script. 

Winstone sends up his persona from The Bill. That TV series is even referenced by a young lad who taunts him in one scene, a fact that underlines the self-mocking nature of the film. Such self-mockery is also apparent in a post-credit sequence at the end where Carlyle shows us some out-takes that weren’t used in the finished cut, mainly due to Thompson (that’s Emma, not Barney) breaking up laughing.

The idea of Carlyle being both in front of the camera and behind it – it’s his directorial debut – is something else that gave me pause.

If one is a Clint Eastwood or a Woody Allen this can work quite well but in the hands of a novice like Carlyle it has all the dangers of a camera-wielding wannabe on a cliff-edge attempting to take a ‘selfie’ before plunging to his death on the rocks below.

Fair *