Review: BARNEY'S VERSION - Charming, Funny & Moving

rating: 4

(Rob's Venice Review Re-Posted As Film Is Released In The U.K. Today) If Natalie Portman has been the stand out actress of this festival for her performance in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, then Paul Giamatti is surly now her opposite number as the best actor. The film in question is Barney's Version, directed by a veteran television director (CSI mostly) Richard J. Lewis. Giamatti plays the title role, as a man reflecting on his life - giving us his account of events (hence the title). Think of it as a gentler, softer, more accessible Synecdoche, New York - if only for the way you see the changes in Giamatti's character over a 30 year period, with all the heartbreak that comes with love and losing it. Based on a beloved novel by the late Canadian author Mordecai Richler, the story begins with a misanthropic and bitter man, seemingly mean and uncaring to those around him. But as we go through his past from his point of view, his actions - even his bad or destructive ones - come to make sense and seem justified. It is a real triumph of the "unrelaible narrator" here, that even when he ditches his wife on their wedding night to chase after another woman he has just met, in spite of ourselves, we see it as a romantic act and root for him. Even when you don't agree with him, you at least empathise. Along the way you see his three marriages; the death of loved ones; and you also see Barney made the prime suspect in a homicide investigation. It would be an understatement to say that he is misunderstood. Barney is his own worst enemy, and people (including his son in one bleak scene) seldom see the best in him because of his exterior shell. But although it is sad and poignant, the first half of the film, is really funny. Barney makes some very cutting remarks and has a pretty black sense of humour, which Giamatti seems to revel in. The 24th and final competition film here, Barney's Version was a nice surprise. I don't know if anybody expected it to be as charming, as funny or as moving as it was (I saw many teary-eyed journalists at the end of this one). The central reason for this emotional ride is Giamatti, who is transformed to look much younger and much older than he is using make-up, but it's his posture, voice and mannerisms that make each stage convincing. He underplays things too. There isn't anything hammy, there's no scenery chewing here. Giamatti is not the only great performer here, however. Dustin Hoffman plays his father, a retired cop, adding a lot of humour and witt to every scene he's in and sparring off Giamatti very well. Hoffman lends a lot of weight to a minor role that might otherwise have gone unnoticed in the hands of a lesser actor. Minnie Driver is funny as Barney's second wife, never afraid to play a goofy woman, whilst Scott Speedman is charismatic and likeable as a self-destructive best friend. British actress Rosamund Pike is the only weak link in the chain, and she's a major link too: playing the central role of Mirriam, Barney's great, life-defining love. There is some excellent dialogue for her character and some nice tender moments, but there just isn't a spark behind the eyes. Maybe this isn't Pike's fault, as the character is quite thinly drawn. And maybe she is supposed to be: this is his version after all, and maybe she is quite flawless and two dimensional in his mind. A very pleasant surprise, and probably in the upper echelons of the films in competition here (somewhere behind Black Swan, Ovsyanki and 13 Assassins). But as far as acting goes, Paul Giamatti's wonderful and complete performance in Barney's Version is at the head of the pack. Barney's Version is released in the U.K. today.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.