A greeting here and a meeting there are what constitute the detective life, I guess. All espionage and no connection makes Barber a dull boy. Valentine Barber, the focal point of the new film Barber, is a modern-day detective, and he is here to tell you that ‘time’s up’, but more importantly, he wants to drive home the point that his rate is 50 dollars an hour plus expenses. That’s his ‘cool’ line. It’s as if the film is so dedicated to being anti-climactic that every scene is doused in that sentiment. I really like Aiden Gillen as an actor. Before his role in Game of Thrones, I had seen him in The Wire, and his slanted smile and that slippery accent have always made him interesting to watch. But it all boils down to the filmmaking, I guess. If the camera is not translating the actor’s actions, then it all goes to waste.
Barber, directed by Fintan Connolly, begins as a moody detective novel. A girl has gone missing—a good start, I would say. Barber, like J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, takes on this case, but his apprehensions are clear. He is into simple cases of minor fraud and occasionally catching housewives having some fun, but this new case of finding Sara Dunne does not really grip him. But as the film is trying to scream out loud—being a private detective is really just another job—Barber too takes the case with that same spirit of doing a plain and simple job. Like a conscientious freelancer. Where this job takes him is the journey this film explores. Barber’s marriage has ended, and his daughter had an accident some time ago. Both her parents are there for her. If Barber’s day wasn’t consumed by his job, he had his ‘other’ life to fill it. He had an ongoing affair with a man named Luke Kenny. Barber’s ex-wife, Monica, knew about his sexual preferences, and the good part was that the marriage hadn’t ended solely because of Barber’s secret life. It was Barber’s inability to differentiate between ‘privacy’ and ‘denial’. I don’t exactly know what she meant, though. Does it mean, if Barber could have differentiated those two things, would they still have been together?
Barber’s daughter Kate, recovering from a neurological problem, is the most endearing character in the whole film. Her hands tremble because of her condition, and she hates her body. It’s hard to watch at times. The pain she goes through. The childhood traumas aside, Kate is the only character I could connect to. Barber continues his meet and greet and gets closer and closer to finding Sara Dunne, whose case was given by her grandmother, Lily Dunne. The case takes him to a serving minister by the name of Eunan Brady, whose collar you didn’t want to grab if you wanted to live a peaceful life in Dublin.
Barber is a film too engaged in itself, so much so that it feels dull. Like a boy at a library, reading a book too close to his face. It seems to have no concept of a form. Val Barber is an interesting character on paper. A bisexual man who survived the ‘old’ Ireland finds this energy in the ‘woke’ era, with the private detective part adding salt and spice to the narrative. But Barber is made in the spirit that just thinking about topics such as ‘me too’ and ‘wokeness’, is enough to make the film an interesting experience. The problem, as I see it, is the obfuscation in the first half. When the second half got clear, nobody had any idea how to weave these topics into the narrative.
The energy of this ‘new’ Ireland does not reach us. There is a clear influence from Roman Polanski’s films Ghost Writer and Chinatown. But Fintan doesn’t have the resources or talent Polanski has to compose shots that have an inherent meaning, irrespective of the plot. The result is that the film thinks itself to be a new-age detective film, but in fact, it is just an old-school detective drama that is done too poorly. What makes it worse is that in some places, the film did try to get moving. There was a quick pan here and a walk-and-talk there, but the overwhelming majority of the film remained that of people sitting down and having a plain chat. It’s these attempts at trying to get a move on that highlight all the other dull parts even more. They are like admissions of guilt, it seems.
Barber has lots of topics to discuss that are very contemporary and important in our culture today. Subjects like abuse of power and harassment are so rampant that films have to be made on them to remove the veil and bring out the stories of those voices that don’t often get proper representation on screen. I have a feeling that politically charged films cannot have this feeling of having been reverse engineered, as they do not work in that case. The character should come first, and then the organic journey should take them towards what we, the audience, also want to explore in our lives.
Barber has the overbearing feeling that it must discuss the pressing issues in a certain order and goes about crafting Valentine Barber in a way that ensures the topics get addressed. For a genre film, that’s fine. For example, if I want certain beats and themes that have been done a million times before and I craft a character to fit the beats, it seems permissible. The film might even cut costs that way, but that kind of writing does not work in a non-genre film such as this. The movie insists on cramming everything into a short period of time and loses its organicity. Aiden Gillen’s well-known intonation style gives Barber gravitas but makes for a lackluster performance. The issue is the writing. There are over-explanations everywhere, except when the runtime is about to be over and the film has to skit through the tracks like a lightweight sports car. The only problem is that Barber is a slow truck driven poorly, and it does not look cool while executing its moves.