This sad, sweet, enormously moving biopic of TV producer Barney Panofsky features front and centre a career-best performance from Paul Giamatti, who scales back his trademark neurosis for a more nuanced and varied portrayal that was unforgivably snubbed at this year’s Academy Awards.

Helmed by long-time TV director Richard J. Lewis and adapted from a novel by Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version is a character study of a person who was never particularly famous but whose life had more than a whiff of the dramatic. One of Panofsky’s three wives died by suicide, he was embroiled in a murder investigation, suffered Altzeimer’s disease in his latter years and had the kind of salty, sardonic but fundamentally decent-hearted personality ripe for a diverse performance — outbursts of anger one scene, moments of tenderness the next.

Richler, Lewis and screenwriter Michael Knovyes don’t sugar coat Panofsky’s story. We see the bracing parts of his personality, his snarl and bite and bitterness, coupled with his many virtues: random acts of kindness, devotion to the love of his life (his third wife Miriam, played by Rosamund Pike), affection for his children and loyalty to his friends.

The narrative begins in present day and smoothly segues back and forth, capturing drunken encounters with friends, travels overseas, moments on the set of his TV programs, Panofsky’s innumerable cigars and scotches.

When Barney’s Version begins to explore his Altzeimer’s, which it gently alludes to early in the story and returns to with considerable impact later, it becomes clear how deep, moving and multilayered this wonderful picture is.

The details: Barney’s Version is playing in cinemas nationally.

Peter Fray

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