Barney's Version A True Labour of Love

Published: October 28th 2010
in Culture » Movies

Barney's Version

“So this is what it feels like to not have a Plan B!” I quipped to my friends Geoff and Vanessa as we were semi-anxiously waiting to hear if we would be admitted to TIFF's final day screening of Barney's Version. With more than characteristic hubris at my oft-reliance on being meticulous with logistics, casting myself to the mercies of externalities, namely, waiting in line without a back-up plan, produced in me an idle thrill. This was my first trip to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); an eminent institution that is the premier launching pad of movies, creating “Oscar Buzz” and dividends for varying features such as Life is Beautiful, American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and Precious among others. 


Barney’s Version is truly a labour of love, spearheaded by Michael Konyves for over a decade: finding the right protagonist and supporting cast, and then convincing them to undertake the project. Headed by up and coming Paul Giamatti (of Sideways fame) as Barney Panofsky and veteran Dustin Hoffman as father Israel “Izzy” Panofsky; the cast sparkle in unanticipated ways. The mercurial performance of Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy Kravitz cast a shrinking shadow on his co-actors in the 1974 film version. The multivariate acting talents of Giamatti and Hoffman’s co-stars may render this as the best Richler novel to film transformation to date.


While the settings have been chronologically fast-forwarded – plus Paris being swapped with Rome – there is a timeless feel to the movie in that it addresses universal human themes.  Themes of love, marriage, father-son relationships, betrayal, ambition, loss and identity (that of being a hockey loving Montreal Jew) emerge and submerge throughout. Barney’s character has been described in the The Walrus magazine as the “Great Male Narcissist.” Indeed, he is at once beguiling and pitiful. You have a certain sense that he wouldn’t care of your opinion either way.


The story starts in 1970s Rome (set here, owing to the popularity of Mordecai Richler’s last novel in Italy, facilitating a Canada-Italy collaboration). Barney is the aloof and generous financier and friend to swathes of bohemians. His first wife (the actual novel is divided into three parts – as per the number of marriages) Clara exudes self-confidence but mistrust and infidelity flesh out her insecurity which precipitates in her painfully poetic self-destruction. This is the moment of Barney’s inexorable decline, whether he realises it or not.


The setting whereby Barney meets his third wife, Miriam, at his own wedding (to his second wife – a spoilt Jewish Montreal princess) is both incredulous and comical. Miriam for all her saintliness (a strong performance by Rosamund Pike) and being the mother of Barney’s children seems to be typically two-dimensional as women portrayed by Richler often were. While being a thirty year matrimony, cracks appear, with Barney unsympathetically taking Miriam for granted. Speaking of cracks, Leonard Cohen also delightfully constellates the soundtrack for the film. The good rapport that Miriam’s manager develops with her, irritates Barney who supposes the newcomer to be an ingratiating pretender. Barney loses whatever sympathy the viewer may have had with his own unconvincing and absurd descent into adultery. He regains it, albeit not fully, years later as he starts to lose his memory, tries to get Miriam back and tries to put back the puzzle of his friend Boogie’s murder (which he’s unsure whether he’d committed) and salvage his life.


It’s a treat to see Montreal – that original great centre of Canadian Jewish life and culture – be itself. Cameos by Canadian icons Paul Gross, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand and Ted Kotcheff populate an already interesting set of characters.


This is a steadfast adaptation of Richler’s novel and Giamatti’s acting is a marvel. Even if Barney fails to capture your empathy in the end, this deeply felt yarn is very much worth seeing: at least twice.


Barney’s Version made its debut at the Venice Film Festival and at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010. The Canadian release date is set to be December 17, 2010.

Related articles: (film, barneys version, mordecai richler, robert lantos, paul giamatti)

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