Barney is a Glasgow barber with a boring little life, who stumbles into a serial killer investigation and then by accident becomes a serial killer himself. He turns to his dominating mother Cemolina (Thompson) to help him cover his tracks, which she does by storing the sawn-up bodies in her freezer. So there are some amusing parallels here with the Sweeny Todd tale – The Demon Barber of Bridgeton, as it were, with mum as Mrs. Lovett.
The setting is interestingly unspecified. It is described as Glasgow “set in no particular era”, uses some effective run down locations and in its design hovers somewhere between the 50s and the 80s – one example being the evocatively ugly furniture in Cemolina’s home.
The film is most successful when it goes into almost cartoonish black comedy. Thompson in particular as Barney’s monstrous, bingo loving mother is terrific. Sporting a ghastly fake leopard fur and crimplene trousers, smudgy lipstick and with a stentorian bullying voice, both actress and make-up artist have done a brilliant job in transforming Thompson, who is only a two years older than Carlyle, into a convincing harridan in her seventies. Her performance is a comic joy.
The other really good performance is Courtenay’s cameo as the mild but foul mouthed detective superintendent, who is heading up the murder investigation. His reaction to seeing a body part displayed on a canteen plate is brilliantly funny. Winstone too strikes the right note as the London copper transplanted unhappily to Glasgow, who is in charge of the case, though Jensen as his ambitious, loud mouthed and mind bogglingly stupid professional rival is encouraged by her director to overact right over the top. Unlike with Thompson, who is a constant source of mirth, in Jensen’s case you just want her to shut up.
The barbers however – Compston as Barney’s colleague and Barney himself – are played on a more naturalistic level, with Compston, reverting with such enthusiasm to his native accent as used in “Sweet Sixteen” that he is virtually incomprehensible to we Sassenachs. While Carlyle, good actor though he is, is somewhat out of key with the colourful style of the other main characters, maybe because he was unable, while playing the lead, to stand back as director and find a unifying note for the film. The character is amusingly morose – “a haunted tree” as a fellow barber describes him – but for some of the time he seems to have wandered in from a different film.
Even so there is a lot to enjoy in the film. Its Scottishness combined with the broad brush stroke humour make it a different type of comedy and it’s worth seeing for Thompson’s performance alone.