Barney’s Version, 131 mins, rated TBC, opens in cinemas 24 March 2011.


(This is my review as  published in the March 2011 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

Barney’s Version is based on a prizewinning, bittersweet, comic novel by Canadian writer Mordecai Richler. Published in 1997, it was Richler’s last novel: he died in 2001 at the age of 70. By then, he had many awards for his writing, which included novels, short stories, children’s’ books, essays, articles and screenplays.

As with many of Richler’s novels, Barney’s Version is vaguely autobiographical. Elements of Richler’s life appear, but in broad brush. Barney’s Version takes a vast sweep across a life – the life of successful Montreal TV-soap opera producer Barney Panofsky. Barney’s a rude, selfish oaf of a man: the sort who chats up another woman at his own wedding! But somehow Barney manages to woo and marry three beautiful women, bring up two delightful children, and worm his way into our hearts, so surreptitiously that it is surprising how much we come to care for Barney, with all his faults, by the end of the film.

The book has been brought to the screen by people who really care about Richler and his work. Producer Robert Lantos was a friend of Richler’s and spent ten years trying to get the film made. Richler himself wrote the first two drafts and then director Richard J Lewis (best known as a writer and director on the TV series CSI) wrote a draft, and finally a new young writer, Michael Konyves, who’s both Jewish and from Montreal, wrote a new script and that was the basis for the film.

The novel spans four decades and two continents, so getting the material down to 131 minutes must have been a challenge. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded, apart from a concluding sequence that seems rushed in its efforts to draw all the strands of the film together.

Along with the obvious care taken with adapting the novel, some other elements make the film work. First among these is the casting. Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 2004, The Last Station, 2009, TV’s John Adams, 2008) plays Barney. When we first see him, he’s in his mid-60s in today’s Montreal, and then the film flashes back to 1974 in Rome. The physical transformation of Giamatti through the years is amazing (Adrien Morot is nominated for an Oscar for best makeup). Critics are hailing this as Giamatti‘s best performance yet.

And Dustin Hoffman, as Barney’s father, steals every scene he’s in, one of the few Jewish detectives in the Montreal police department. One of the joys of the film is the relationship between father and son: they have a deep mutual affection born of a basic understanding of each other’s strengths and foibles. There’s also a luminous performance by Rosamund Pike, as Barney’ third wife – the love of his life. The dialogue, too, is funny and witty and earthy and ribald, delivered by real pros.

This is a film of details, too, from the recreation of a bohemian existence in Rome in the 70s, to the horrendous authenticity of Barney’s over-the-top wedding reception when he marries the marvellously awful Minnie Driver.

But I think the most important thing about the book, crucial for the film, is the fact that it’s Barney’s version of his life. It’s not necessarily the truth: it’s Barney’s view, and he’s an unreliable narrator. All along we’re seeing things as he sees them. His self-loathing gives us the same jaundiced view of his life that he has, but we don’t realise that as we’re watching. It is only at the end that we begin to see that Barney has misled us into thinking he’s worse than he really is. There’s also a sub-plot about a possible murder that we see only from Barney’s perspective, so once again we get the wrong end of the stick.

And I’m afraid that’s where the film falls short. The crucial realisation that we’ve been misled comes just as the film is ending. Perhaps it’s too subtlely conveyed. It certainly feels rushed, and the film was over before I worked out that I’d been hoodwinked.

Yet this is Barney Panofsky’s story. I should have known better than to trust him. He’s an unreliable witness.