131 mins, rated TBC, opens in cinemas 24 March 2011.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published
in the March 2011 issue of The New South Wales Law Society
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
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
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
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.