Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman and Rosemund Pike star in Richard Lewis’ excellent adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel Barney’s Version.
Barney’s Version is, as the title suggests, about recollection; looking back on events in our lives as we remember them, whether that is the truth or a version of the truth as our memory conjures it. Richard J. Lewis’ film, based on the Mordecai Richler novel of the same name, sees the world from the subjective point of view of protagonist Barney Panofsky. We see events take place as vicarious flies on the wall of Barney’s world. We are therefore subjected to the story as he sees it.
It makes for a fascinating film that gains further credence thanks to another assured turn from the ever-dependable Paul Giamatti as Barney. Prompted by an aging police detective releasing a book that alleges Barney is responsible for the disappearance and probable death of best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), he begins to look back on his life beginning with his first wife. He takes us back to the time in the 1970s when he met the promiscuous free spirit Clara Charnofsky (Rachelle Lefevre) who he marries in Rome after accidentally getting her pregnant. The marriage doesn’t last very long when it becomes clear the baby is not his but one of his close friend’s, prompting him to leave his wife. She doesn’t take this change of plan very kindly and, after begging Barney to return to her, commits suicide. Returning home, he meets his second wife, a self-obsessed rich girl who is never named (played by Minnie Driver). However, on their wedding day he meets the beautiful radio journalist Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike), who he falls madly in love with and pursues endlessly until his second marriage eventually falls apart.
There’s an episodic nature to the plotting but what is fascinating is how Barney’s version of himself softens as he gets closer to the present. He paints himself as the victim early on, often romanticising events, even the suicide of his first wife and the revelation that his close friend is the father of her baby, with overtly dramatic or particularly tragic reminiscences. He is not the cause of his own downfall even though we witness him make decisions that are clearly morally ambiguous. He is not, evidently, a likable man in the conventional sense (the wedding day pursuit of Miriam while his new wife dances the night away will undoubtedly turn people against him), but like first wife Clara once told him – he wears his heart on his sleeve – and sometimes he is led by his instinct rather than rational thought. This becomes particularly interesting as his memory recalls events later in life when his view of himself becomes more melancholic and even critical. He is much more self-deprecating and, indeed, sober which endears you to him. Instead of being the victim and remembering with self-pity the obstacles he faced he becomes the cause of his own downfall. Indeed, he is the obstacle. He effectively becomes a sort of honest fool who admits his mistakes. And from being a man we’d rather hold at arms length, our sympathies begin to side with him rather than the people he’s left behind.
“As Barney’s life is brought vividly to life so begins an engaging character study based on one man’s shady memories. It is within these memories where the choice to believe what you want to believe often clouds not only the truth, but your own interpretation of achievements and failings.”
Barney’s eventual fallibility is exposed by his increasingly critical view of his own existence (there’s a wonderful scene where his steely exterior breaks down after discovering his father, played by Dustin Hoffman, died while copulating following a visit to a brothel), and the Alzheimer’s that takes hold later in life. This is brought to the fore by the brilliance of Giamatti who is aged and fattened by the film’s make-up artists. The actor is perfectly suited to self-obsessed characters who don’t on the surface endear themselves to audiences. With his unassuming, un-Hollywood looks and his ability to mix comedy with tragedy, he becomes a naturalistic everyman who is, ultimately, captivating to watch.
But it isn’t just Giamatti, with those penetrating eyes that always suggest there’s plenty going on under the surface, who is great in Barney’s Version. Even Minnie Driver, with her limited range, is coaxed out of her shell by director Lewis as Barney’s motor-mouth second wife. Rosamund Pike and Dustin Hoffman deserve praise for strong support, while Rachelle Lafevre, Mark Addy and Scott Speedman are all great in small roles.
Barney’s Version is a sobering look at a less-than-sober man as he recalls a life of pitfalls and obstacles, of decisions made and mistakes lived with, of lost friends and lost friendships, of love, life, family and relationships. At its centre is a self-obsessed television executive whose faculties are failing him. As his life is brought vividly to life so begins an engaging character study based on one man’s shady memories. It is within these memories where the choice to believe what you want to believe often clouds not only the truth, but your own interpretation of achievements and failings.