The truth of a man’s life story depends on who tells it.
I feel like there’s some kind of external force that tells me I’ll love films like this, and as a result I have become one of the most predictable people ever when it comes to what I’ll like.
Barney’s Version is a refreshing throwback. Simple as that. As producer Robert Lantos said in a roundtable I’ve watched god knows how many times now (www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7SYQhie_h8), it’s the type that, 30 years ago, would have been a studio film, and it certainly feels like one. It has an incredibly distinctive, great aesthetic that harks back to the 70s, with amazing sets and costumes. From the moment that T. Rex’s ‘Bang a Gong (Get It On)’ breezes through the sound system, you’ve fallen under the spell of Barney’s Version‘s charms, instantly transported to 70s Rome, New York, and Canada.
The incredible atmosphere this generates permeates the entire film, making its potentially cumbersome 2+ hour runtime positively glide by in a lush, hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, but always wildly entertaining cross-continental journey.
But then the world shifts. In one moment, a scene I could talk about forever, Barney’s life, and the whole film changes. With an exquisite cover of the classic ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ crooning over the speakers (damn, I wish I could get a full recording of it), Barney is suddenly bowled over by a glimpse of a woman. It will turn out to be Miriam, the girl of his dreams. In this moment, he doesn’t even know her name yet, but he’s already passionately in love. The instant attraction is palpable, you can feel the tectonic plates shift as Barney looks into the room adjoining his incredibly white and pastel colour drenched wedding. He is having nothing short of an awful time, but as he looks into the yellow room and sees this laughing, positively delightful woman wearing a deep blue dress who is unlike anyone he’s ever seen, you can see he’s head over heels in love. It’s incredibly disarming and unique, as never before has the audience fallen in love with a character from the very first shot.
And there lies the key to Barney’s Version‘s success – you instantly adore Miriam as much as Barney does (pretty sure even I would have married her). Rosamund Pike is absolutely perfect in the role. It’s almost a miracle of a casting decision. She’s almost an otherworldly beauty, unbelievably gorgeous, just floating around in a positively luminous fashion with the most incredible voice (especially that American accent) ever. I’m crossing my fingers for her to receive a Best Actress nomination next year even more now, it’d be so amazing if she finally got some recognition for her great work over the years.
As the man who is instantly enamoured with the dreamlike Miriam, Paul Giamatti is a powerhouse. Barney’s the kind of person you’d probably avoid with a ten-foot pole in real life, but Giamatti makes him so endearing, taking the excellent writing to turn a grouchy, drunk idiot into an occasionally loveable oaf, through things like that infectious smile when he finds (SPOILER) one of his wives cheating on him, now having an excuse to leave a loveless marriage.
While Giamatti and Pike are absolutely stunning in the lead roles, the same can be said about the entire supporting cast. The casting is a true achievement (where is that casting Oscar?), everyone from Minnie Driver to Dustin Hoffman gives 110% to their performance. Its aim certainly isn’t Before series levels of realism (oh man, that first date was so charming), but all the performers click together so naturally, the chemistry is so powerful and unforced.
It’s a labour of love of the best kind – passionate, but never self-indulgent. With some spectacular writing (the cemetery plot bit – what a line!), it makes a 400 page, 40 year-spanning book (now that’s some adapting!) work so fluidly with seamless flashbacks, and jaw-droppingly incredible but beautifully subtle make up, offering up an surprising amount of out-of-the-blue twists, with perfect emotional payoff at the end (I was about 5 seconds away from crying for the last fifteen or so minutes).
Three-quarters of the way through, all these moments of a crazily colourful life that have been excellently presented, are pulled together in an excellent scene, revealing what this whole journey has been about – living in the past, clutching to former glory, only to turn around and find it’s all gone. Covering such a massive time frame with the same actors in such a believable way is no easy feat. Barney’s Version is incredibly ambitious, and it definitely gets there.
Just…Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike. Wow. I could have watched it again right after.
Barney’s Version received a limited release in March 2011.
M (mature themes, sexual references, coarse language, and drug references), 128 mins.