Dir:- Richard J. Lewis
Starr:- Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman, Mark Addy, Rachelle Lefevre, Dustin Hoffman
Barney’s Version is a solidly constructed adaptation of Montreal-born Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler’s last novel. It offers nothing in the way of cinematic innovation, but does feature some excellent performances from the always reliable Giamatti and Hoffman, whilst making me aware, for the first time, what the precise purpose of Rosamund Pike is.
Barney’s Version has more than a passing resemblance to the cocaine-fuelled biopic Blow, with both films lovingly recreating the garish 60’s and seedy 70’s of popular imagination, whilst dwelling on the twin themes of memory and regret. However, whereas the drugs are never too far away in Blow and the love-interest plays out like a love-interest, in Barney’s Version, it is death that seems to stalk around every corner, closely accompanied by a ‘real’ sense of love, that makes Barney’s recklessness all the more painfully masochistic.
Giamatti could probably e-mail in this kind of performance and still be exceptional, his slightly crumpled features and puppy-dog eyes seemingly purpose built for such heady concoctions of innate charm, melancholy, neurosis and self-loathing. Playing a working class Jewish-Canadian with ideas above his station Giamatti absolutely nails that sense of being an outsider even when he is patently on the inside. Barney Panofsky is the son of a cop (Izzy) who manages to use a little of his acumen for business to travel around Europe, importing oil and other things, whilst imbibing the artistic bohemianism of the mid-sixties. A shotgun wedding to a suicidal Jewess, that he had thought some kind of regal blue-blood, ends terribly for Barney when he discovers that her child is clearly mixed-race and therefore more likely the child of an artist friend. Barney leaves her and the woman commits suicide, the first of many brushes with death that Barney endures.
Returning to Montreal he takes up production duties at his uncle’s television company and begins to date another young Jewess, the unnamed ‘second wife’, who this time comes from Montreal money, and is played quite fantastically by Minnie Driver. Marrying her despite the clear misgivings of her self-important father, Barney finds himself now part of ‘high society’, however on his wedding night whilst drunk at the reception, he meets a woman, Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike) who makes him feel, for the first time, the wild abandon of ‘true’ love. Leaving his own wedding reception to hurtle through the Montreal night and board a train that he has no ticket for, just so he can profess to Miriam the crazy feeling that she has induced in him, is the first thing in the movie that Barney does from an impulse of feeling, rather than thought. Rather than looking at the various angles to this relationship, or pursuing a marriage of obligation, Barney finds himself embracing the impulsivity of passion and this scene, these early moments with Miriam, come to be the defining moments of his life.
At the start of the movie we see Barney as an old man, living alone in his plush apartment, drinking himself unconscious, but before doing so making some randomly abusive phonecall to his ex-wife and her ‘new’ husband. His actions have the rawness of emotion that comes from a recent break-up, laced with a deep sense of self-hatred, clearly stemming from guilt. Later on Barney turns up for work at his production company, suitably entitled Totally Unnecessary Productions, and creates a bit of confusion with his lead actress on the awful sitcom he has produced for years. Hounded by a police detective (a nicely rugged cameo from Mark Addy) whilst taking an afternoon soak in a bar, we realise that Barney has been involved in some suspicious disappearance, that the detective clearly believes to have been a murder. It is at this point that Barney’s memory cascades back through his past and we are given his life in seemingly linear flashback.
The disappearance turns out to have been that of his oldest friend Bernard ‘Boogie’ Moscovitch (Richler loves his nicknames), played by Scott Speedman. Together they had been hard-living flâneurs in Rome, where Barney had always had faith in the artistic pretensions of his friend’s writing. Later on the two men have become socially dependent drinking buddies, as Buddy has hit a mental block and Barney is stuck in a loveless marriage to Minnie Driver, all the while fantasising of breaking away to Miriam. One day Minnie Driver discovers Barney’s correspondence with Miriam and assuming her husband is having an affair goes over to the house Barney has leant his Buddy and sleeps with the feckless lush. Barney stumbles upon his wife and best friend and gleefully realises he now has a valid excuse to end the whole sorry mess of a relationship. Sticking around at the house with Buddy, they get drunk together and trawl back through their shared history until Buddy starts fooling around with Barney’s gun. Much later on Barney regains consciousness with no sign of Buddy and a nagging sense that his friend has drowned in the lake at the back of the property. Despite Barney having reported the disappearance to the police, Mark Addy’s police detective is convinced that he has committed the crime, but cannot find the body to pin the murder on him. The disappearance/murder points up the Montreal police force’s attitude toward Izzy (played by Dustin Hoffman), Barney’s father, who seems to have only been a tolerated presence, potentially lending some weight to Izzy’s claims that the police are anti-semitic.
In the fallout of this affair Barney gets his divorce and finally enters into a relationship with Miriam. They have a family and Barney finally seems to have found some kind of true happiness, but a fatally stupid indiscretion steals all of that away from him. It is at this point that we realise exactly how intricately patterned the narrative is. Barney’s Version is not a simple film about love and regret, but rather a subtle meditation on what love actually is and what ultimately deprives us of it – death. Barney loves his father, he loves his friend, he loves Miriam and he loves their children. Somehow he feels a responsibility, for at the very least, having pushed his friend away, if not possibly having played a part in his death. His father dies some time after he marries Miriam, robbing him of the paternal camaraderie and support he’d come to rely on. Barney’s relationship with Miriam falls apart over his own jealousy, his drinking and the reckless indiscretion. Whilst as a result of the break-up his own son won’t talk to him, leaving him only his daughter, who he seems to have trouble remembering.
The draft of memories, his own version of events, appear brutally honest and it becomes apparent that they are compelled thus, as Barney has become increasingly aware that he is losing his mind to Alzheimer’s. As the movie wore on I couldn’t help but be engaged by the chillingly horrific idea that experience may bring us a whole raft of new emotions and may sour the love we once had for someone, but if the recollection of those experiences is erased, then that love reemerges, just as strong as it ever was. In one of the most impressively acted scenes of the year Giamatti and Pike, an actress finally justifying some of the early praise, sit down for dinner in the restaurant adjoining the venue where they first met, at Barney’s wedding to Minnie Driver. They have long since separated and Pike’s Miriam has only just recently been informed that Giamatti’s Barney is losing his memory. Barney at first appears to be lucid, but then gradually regresses to a place where Miriam and himself were absolutely in love. Two decades of pain, suffering and enmity literally fall away from Barney and the warmth of all those passionate feelings courses through him and pours out of him. Miriam, imprisoned in the present, cannot return this love without it being modulated and attenuated by what that love became, however she attempts to pretend for Barney’s sake. We are left watching the painfully true and affecting performances of Giamatti and Pike, with the realisation that love isn’t actually a transitory and fleeting feeling, that a profound love will persist, unacknowledged, even when buried under the avalanche of bitterness and accusation, that even in regret what we are actually experiencing is the ghost of love. In Barney’s ‘final version’ of events he is still the loving, dutiful husband he knew he could only be with Miriam, beyond that lies the foreign shores of ‘forgetting’.