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BARNEY'S VERSION, 2011
A 14th century Crusader returns to a homeland devastated by the Black Plague. A beleaguered church, deeming sorcery the culprit of the plague, commands the two knights to transport an accused witch to a remote abbey, where monks will perform a ritual in hopes of ending the pestilence. A priest, a grieving knight, a disgraced itinerant and a headstrong youth who can only dream of becoming a knight join a mission troubled by mythically hostile wilderness and fierce contention over the fate of the girl. When the embattled party arrives at the abbey, a horrific discovery jeopardises the knight's pledge to ensure the girl fair treatment, and pits them against an inexplicably powerful and destructive force.
Release Date: 7 January 2011
Waving a cigar with one hand and fondling a glass of scotch with the other, Paul Giamatti commands his performance of Barney Panofsky with a balanced combination of arrogance and paranoia that could only come natural to an actor of his uncanny range.
If George Clooney is the Cary Grant of today’s generation of film, Giamatti is its Mickey Rooney. He does not have the physical appeal to play the charming heroic lead who gets the girl in the end. And though he has portrayed a vast array of insect-like supporting characters throughout his career, he does not typically portray the major nemeses who crave world domination. He is less like a character who you love to hate and more like someone you actually know.
Even though his celebrated role of John Adams is an exception to his tradition of playing aloof and neurotic characters, his depiction of the second president of the United States is a perfect example of his ability to appear noble in the face of aggravation. His complicated character of Barney Panofsky is built of much of the same caliber.
Based on the 1997 Canadian novel of the same name by the late Mordecai Richler, “Barney’s Version” is essentially a character-centered examination of the protagonist’s personal history and accomplishments, both successful and disastrous. Like Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, Barney’s life is full of dynamic, as well as unnerving supporting characters, who counteract with his stubborn perspectives.
On the plus side, there is his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), who acts as a sensible foil to his son’s indecisive and abrasive behavior. Barney also has plenty of friends who enable his alcoholism and lewd manner of expression. As the years jump into the autumn years of Barney’s professional life as a television producer, we notice that he has replaced these boisterous friends with sociopath colleagues. They all laugh at his wicked sense of humor, but there is a subtle hint that they need to out of fear instead of enjoyment.
Such is the nervous energy Giamatti is able to generate as his central character ages through the chapters of his story. When Barney is a young man surrounded by friends in Rome, we see a man who is growing in confidence and already settled in opinions. He is passionate in his convictions, no matter how politically incorrect they might be. It is here where he meets his first wife, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre, who sacrificed her role of Victoria in “Twilight: Eclipse” so she could play this part).
Barney’s involvement with the awkward and inappropriate Clara is not based on romance but circumstance. Because of her unscheduled pregnancy, he is unhappily prepared to abandon his freedom in order to do the right thing and make an honest woman of her. His hard-drinking friends try to talk him out of this decision. But it is hopeless. As we will see, Barney is not a character whose motivations can be swayed by friendship.
Or by intimidation, for that matter. Throughout his unpredictable and insecure life, Barney is confronted by wives, their overprotective fathers, and homicide detectives. When bullied by Detective O’Hearne (Mark Addy, who does a very believable American policeman despite being English) about the disappearance of his former drug addict friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), Barney refuses to betray any revelations or clues.
And this is probably where the film differs most from its novelized origins. The title to Richler’s book connotes that Barney’s confused recollection of his own life’s events represent an unreliable narrator. But in this cinematic format, Barney’s interpretations of his life’s decisions seem more impulsive and illogical than mistaken or accidental.
His love for his third wife is a genuine example. After making the wrong choice with his unnamed second wife (Minnie Driver at her whimsical best), Barney finally falls in love with Miriam (Rosemund Pike). We know she is truly the one for him because of his excitement regarding their courtship. Unlike his first two wives, he is actually nervous to meet her for their first date. His characteristic cynicism is drowned out by romantic idealism. Unwavering in his paternal support, Izzy encourages their union. And just like that, “Barney’s Version” is no longer a story about murder or confessions. It suddenly becomes a family history detailing a successful American marriage.
And this is perhaps what is most wrong with “Barney’s Version.” Giamatti is perfectly cast as the lead in this comedic drama. His penchant for hysterical reaction makes him an ideal choice to portray an embattled man caught in the throes of mental decay. But since Lewis tries so hard to get the audience to ride in the front seat of Barney’s life, it is hard to empathize with this character since his line of motivations is so questionable. Can anybody tell me, for instance, what caused Barney to ultimately destroy his third and most prized marriage?
Yes, I know the short answer is sex. But my question is why did he resort to such a meaningless and seemingly insignificant affair? The entire movie seems to be a blueprint detailing his love for Miriam. What motivated him to destroy it?
And the aftermath conclusion regarding the whereabouts of the missing Boogie is both murky and irreverent. Barney is ultimately acquitted of any crime due to lack of evidence. But we feel cheated out of this subplot because Barney is unable to provide any definite answers himself. And since he is left alone by the film’s ending, there is no one who can speak on his behalf. His version is one that has burned itself out, which makes it hard to feel an impact for these events since they lack discernible motivation on his part.