Now streaming on:
The Dublin of Fintan Connolly's "Barber" is chilly, insular, and claustrophobic: narrow streets, dark rooms, darker bars, airless. The expansive view from the terrace of private investigator Val Barber's penthouse apartment provides no sense of space or freedom. Everyone knows everyone else. Secrets are buried for years. Grudges are intractable. "Barber" takes place during the initial months of Covid lockdown (incidentally, when it was filmed). "Social distancing" is on everyone's minds, and frequent Zoom calls are a novelty. The Dublin in "Barber," indeed the Ireland in "Barber," is torn between the past and the present. There's a lot of tension along old fault lines.
These aspects and more are the wordless background noise of the film, far more compelling than the actual crime being investigated by the rumpled, tormented Barber (Aidan Gillen). The movie is about a disappeared 20-year-old girl, and the Garda are perceived as so corrupt (not to mention potentially involved in a cover-up) that the girl's grandmother comes to Barber, asking him to look into it. Barber's investigation leads him to unsavory places and into the highest ranks of power. There are a lot of people who don't want Barber following these leads. He experiences harassment and a wall of institutional silence and must rely on a whisper network of frightened witnesses who hesitate to even talk to him. It's 2020. #MeToo is in the air.
Much of this is reminiscent of the palpable vibe of paranoia and repression evoked in John Banville's Christine Falls (written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black), the first of the "Quirke" mystery series, taking place in 1950s Dublin, where Quirke, a dry-drunk pathologist, gets sucked into investigating the murder of a young woman. His eventual conclusions implicate the Catholic Church at a time when Ireland was next door to a theocracy. The Catholic Church isn't so much a factor in "Barber," but the feeling of looming power lording it over innocents, many of them young women, is the air everyone still breathes. 2020 isn't that far away from the 1950s, after all.
Like Quirke, Barber is a flawed man, struggling silently with his problems, keeping secrets, an old habit, even in a more open time. One of Barber's colleagues jokes about the new "woke Ireland," but it seemingly came too late to help the older generation. There are still real fears of blackmail. Barber's secrets don't weigh heavily on him, or at least he's not conscious of the weight. He's so used to living a secret life. These are all fascinating aspects of the film (co-written by Connelly and producer Fiona Bergin), avenues of exploration not really taken, although present enough to be thought-provoking. Barber's personal life is a mess. He's separated from his wife (Helen Behan), and their daughter Kate (Aisling Kearns) blames her mother for the separation. Kate is permanently injured from a recent car accident, leaving her with cognitive and physical challenges. There's a lot of worry about her future, but Barber and his ex-wife can no longer talk to one another. Secrets, secrets.
The crime investigation could have benefited from a bit of expansion and deepening, looping together "woke Ireland" and all its tensions with the implications of the disappeared girl and what she went through. These connections are there, but not enough. It's the difference between plot and story. The plot is what happens—the disappeared girl, her friends, and frenemies who know more than they're telling—when the story, the real story, is the tensions in Ireland between progress and regression, and the anger progress evokes in those attached to the old ways. Old habits die hard, and those invested in the power structures continuing unabated will not go down without a fight. Barber's struggle to bridge the gap in his investigation is identical to his attempt to bridge the gap in himself.
Gillen has been doing excellent, nuanced work for years, not just in "Game of Thrones" but in films like "Sing Street" and "Rose Plays Julie" (where he is truly chilling). Here, he is barely making it through the day, barely able to put a comb through his rumpled hair. He's "quit smoking," but Gillen suggests at every moment how much Barber wants a cigarette. He's barely holding on. There's something ravaged and blank about the expression on his face, the result of living his secrets for so long, the damage those secrets have done to him and those he loves. The real story of "Barber" is in Gillen's face.
The film might have benefited from a lengthier treatment and more exploration of all the themes at work. As it is, "Barber" is a fairly rote crime drama but a fascinating glimpse of a world in transition. Even as everyone is "locked down," frozen in their homes, things are at work, and change is on the move. Progress can't be reversed, even though the powerful keep trying.
Now playing in theaters.
Aidan Gillen as Val Barber
Steve Wall as Eddie Quinn
Desmond Eastwood as Cian Kelly
Liam Carney as Tony Quinn
Rúaidhrí Conroy as Luke Kenny
Gary Lydon as Johnny Mulligan
Ailbhe Cowley as Amy
Nick Dunning as Eunan Brady