It Can’t Be Wrong To Laugh At Barney Thomson
Read Time: approx. 5-7 min
The Legend of Barney Thomson confirms my opinion of Robert Carlyle as an artist worthy of attention. Darkly hilarious, Barney delivers. A larger than life Scottish-Western (is this a genre now?), Mr. Carlyle obviously spent time polishing this with genuine appreciation for film-craft, attention to detail and love. Frank and gritty mise-en-scene bring this Barbershop of Horrors to life.
Barney feels like our collective existential crises exploded in the microwave. But rather than just finding a mess instead of a meal, Barney blew up the microwave itself and we, fortunately, can be found ducking behind the counter. Giggling madly.
It can’t be wrong to laugh at Barney. It just can’t be. But pitch black humor forces us to address why it is we’re laughing so hard at something which, told in the style of a drama, would be a tear-jerker and no mistake. Being mindful of spoilers, there is a scene in which Barney learns a tough truth from his mother. I confess, there was silence in the theater except for me who was laughing uncontrollably. I knew other people weren’t finding this scene particularly humorous, but I was laughing because when life gets that absurd, and it does, my coping strategy of choice is to take a step back and giggle as much as possible. It’s a pressure relief valve of mine.
It’s the piano falling from the sky, after the sky itself fell down. The choices are either shatter and panic, or laugh. So yeah, I was laughing alone in a room full of people because, while circumstances were different, I’ve been there to get hit in the head by the other shoe dropping. I swear this is empathy.
More seriously though, thematically, Barney is touching in ways I was not expecting. The gem at the heart of this film is Barney’s relationship with his mother. This bald look at sub-ideal parenting in a sub-ideal world is intimately relatable even while it seems ultimately inflated beyond what most of us actually experience. Well, I hope most of us don’t experience Cemolina Thomson.
But some folks do. Like so much of Mr. Carlyle’s work, this spotlight on how a tough world generates- grinds up like sausage really- mangled people showcases the essential humanity of the downtrodden, the weak, and even the cruel and heartless among us. Most of the Barney’s in our world are imminently forgettable. We don’t even notice them. They’re them, after all, not us. Until we find ourselves stalking their footprints.
It’s the whole attitude of it could never happen to me… I could never get stuck in an economically dying neighborhood or town. I couldn’t be so bad at my job as to lose it. I couldn’t find myself in a heap of trouble and completely alone. That only happens to other people, and besides which, if I lost my job, it would be for some other reason. Those people are losers and I just don’t have time for them.
At the end of the day, what if someone had had time for Barney Thomson as a child, or even later as an adult? How might his existence have been different? What about Cemolina? Would there have been hope for her too? And Holdall, generating, and suffering at the same time from, a toxic work culture. Been there, done that.
How do we make time for each other? Make compassion? Is the whole world so very tired that there is literally no energy to spare on lifting up those worse off than ourselves? Not the message I was expecting from the Legend of Barney Thomson, but there it is anyway.
Emma Thompson gave a scruff-grabbing performance. She shook us from start to finish. What a character, what an opportunity. Mr. Carlyle himself shines on his bad days (does he even have those?), as we well know, and on his good days he’s dazzling. In a particular scene, Barney seems on the verge of a panic attack. It is a long scene shot directly in Mr. Carlyle’s face and I found myself squirming in my seat because there was no escaping the steamroller of anxiety charging off the screen. There was no getting comfortable for pretty much the duration of the film because emotions were incredibly direct and literally in our faces. The space between audience and fiction got squeezed so tightly as to be barely there at all.
Only two real detractors appeared in the film for me: subtitles and smoking.
I am uncertain where the decision to add subtitles to the American (but apparently not the Canadian) release occurred, but I wasn’t pleased. Neither was the rest of the audience, based on the shouting that accompanied mine the moment we saw subtitles. If Canadians can understand Scottish, so can Americans. Insulting. The point of going to a film like this one linguistically is to LISTEN to the Scottish and learn. Subtitles distract from that challenge and from the film experience. They interfere with the suspension of disbelief.
Speaking for myself, I find it acceptable not to understand every word, idiom and grunt as it goes by. I understand that perhaps, and I don’t know for certain, the average movie goer would find that challenge itself, distracting, but this film obviously wasn’t aimed at the casual action flick film goer.
Moving on to smoking. I’ve never been to Scotland so I don’t know if smoking is really that ubiquitous, but Pacific Northwestern United States culture is nowhere near as accepting of that nasty addiction. I grew up around smoking and find it very hard to watch it portrayed, even if they aren’t smoking actual tobacco on set, in film because it is hard for me to watch people hurting themselves and other people for real. How to explain… I recently lost someone to cancer, likely from a lifetime of smoking various things including tobacco, and I think of that loss every time I see someone smoking on camera. It is also hard to watch smoking being considered as something normal which some people do as opposed to the public health crisis it is. Though we never see Barney smoke, his non-reaction to being in rooms full of smoke is evidence that this is an occurrence he is accustomed to encountering.
Those two rather minor details accounted for, Barney is solid.
When I read reviews of this film in anticipation (a long indeed anticipation here in the U.S.), I expected to like the film a bit more than the critics because I’m perhaps a tad biased as a fan of Mr. Carlyle’s previous and current work. In all honesty, I was expecting to see fatigue and struggle in the final outcome because Mr. Carlyle himself seemed to imply that the director’s chair in addition to starring was an awful lot to chew. Maybe Mr. Carlyle is just a humble guy, I, after all, don’t know the man, but what I saw in the film itself was pride in a piece of artwork and pleasure in its making. I saw the clarity of a finished work.
I recognize that I am reading in, but I don’t think I’m wrong. Every film, every piece of art, every book, all of it, gives off a general impression and is, at its heart, the fingerprint of its originator. All of that to seeps through onto the screen/page/whatever. Tell me it isn’t obvious when a film lacks the passions of those working on it. Anyone can spot a cheap throw-away and I’m sure everyone has regretted spending money on at least one film in their lives for this reason.
The brew a film was steeped in makes a huge difference and this, my friends, was some quality tea. This film has sophistication and density like it was made just for me. Like Mr. Carlyle had stopped by to ask what it is I like about film the very most. This film is smart without being inaccessible or opaque. There’s no need to go swimming in the thematic material in order to enjoy the film, but it’s there for those who do want that. Nice balance and hard to pull off.
Mr. Carlyle has a tremendous amount to offer this world and the Legend of Barney Thomson is only the latest proof. Two thumbs up, definitely go see it.
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