Mindhorn review

This article isn’t at all related to Motorsport, but I thought I’d branch out a bit and write about something different, if nothing else for a bit of variety.

Despite being interested, I wasn’t sure what to see this year in the BFI London film Festival, (I kind of like Black Mirror, but the tickets sold out within a day so I resolve to watch it on TV once Channel 4 pick it up) but I saw there was a Julian Barratt comedy on called “Mindhorn”; and having enjoyed Barratt’s performance as half of the wacky and subversive musical comedy duo The Mighty Boosh (And more recently the strange but brilliant Flowers, in which Barratt played a suicidally depressed father with frank and earnest sensitivity) I decided to give it a watch.

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It’s Truth time… Julian Barratt as Richard Thorncroft, playing ex-MI5, Isle of Man dwelling cyborg agent Mindhorn.

The premise of Mindhorn is this: Barratt plays a washed up actor called Richard Thorncroft, who was briefly famous in the late 80’s/early 90’s for being the titular star of Mindhorn; a hilariously trope-ridden detective show set and shot on the Isle of Man, which seems to be a sort of a cross between The Professionals, (His tan jacket and turtleneck outfit does look uncannily similar to Bodie’s) Inspector Morse, and a low budget 6 Million Dollar Man. Mindhorn’s central gimmick was his signature bionically enhanced eye (an eyepatch with a red dot on it) which allows him to quite literally ‘see the truth’ in order to solve crimes.

Unfortunately, 25 years after the show controversially ended, Thorncroft is now out of work and in full mid-life-crisis mode after being fired from doing orthopaedic sock adverts in favour of John Nettles and is balding in a flat in Walthamstow, going through what his agent has been describing for the past 5 years as a “transitional phase”. Worse, his on-screen/off-screen love interest Patricia DeVille (Essie Davies) has long since left him for his former stuntman, (Simon Farnaby, who co-wrote the screenplay with Barratt and is doing one of his trademark unrecognisable accents) and to top it all off a supporting actor from the show, Peter Easterman (Steve Coogan), has inexplicably managed to make a much more successful and longer running spin-off series based on his macintosh-wearing bit-part scientist Windjammer, one which Thorncroft resents as it has totally eclipsed Mindhorn.

But it turns out that not everyone has forgotten about Mindhorn; an unhealthily obsessive fan of the show (Russell Tovey) is a wanted criminal on the Isle of Man who watched VHS tapes of Mindhorn to cope with a childhood trauma, and as a result has become delusional, fully believing that the show is reality. He only answers to the name of “The Kestrel” and demands to talk to Mindhorn, and Mindhorn alone. Thorncroft is summoned by Manx police to play Mindhorn one last time, in order to negotiate with the deranged madman, but one which he intends to get full media exposure from. Along the way he meets up with his old cast members and attempts to rekindle his former romance with Patricia. But Thorncroft is about to get in way over his head when the Kestrel releases an apocalypse of justice…

Something that really struck me was the little details about typecast actors who achieve cult fame, which felt very true to life; for example, it’s revealed in an early gag that Thorncroft at one point attempted a musical career, with the corny single “You can’t handcuff the wind” (Which plays during the ending credits) being the hilariously disastrous product of that; very reminiscent of Lewis Collins’ and Martin Shaw’s similarly short-lived solo musical ventures. The rest of the score is well done too, with the Mindhorn theme tune being a particular favourite with it’s cheesy synthwave. There was an awful lot of attention to detail despite it clearly being shot on a fairly low budget, and it’s cool to see the sheer amount and variety of Mindhorn tat that both Thorncroft and The Kestrel seem to have. (My personal favourites being the “Now with interlocking pieces” Jigsaw puzzle and the “Truth powder” which Thorncroft says is infamous for blinding 3 children in Whitby in 1989) The use of the Isle of Man as the setting is also an inspired and unconventional one, given that it often doubles for so many other more famous locations and seems like a mundane setting for a action-packed detective series. One minor gag I love is when Thorncroft, in full Mindhorn get-up, attempts in typical 80’s cop show fashion to scale over the top of a rural gate, only for the gate to swing open whilst he’s climbing it.

“You ever watched the show?”

“No sir, but my Mum was a big fan.”

“Ah, clearly a woman of good taste! …Is she single?”

“No, she’s dead.”

An exchange between Thorncroft and a policeman early on in the film.

The plot draws somewhat obvious parallels with comedies like Galaxy Quest and The 3 Amigos, (Where Actors are mistaken for the real deal and have to save the day at great risk to themselves) but Mindhorn doesn’t feel totally derivative of them; the fact that it’s British cop shows being satirised rather than sci-fis or westerns makes it a unique enough genre, but I also feel Barratt and Farnaby also add a lot of very British dark humour which although effective does have strong shades of earlier comedies like Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa; not a disastrous thing in of itself but made rather apparent by Steve Coogan’s presence in the film. The opening section and first act of the film is probably the best and most fully realised part as it’s consistently funny. In the latter stages the big laughs are scattered slightly further apart and the tone is a bit more uneven, but there are still some absurd moments all the way through. It’s a film does it’s job well and has a lot of fun with it; even if it’s not completely original it’s drawn from some good inspiration and I applaud Barratt and co. for taking a risk and not simply creating “The Mighty Boosh Movie” and cashing in as we’ve seen from many other TV stars, often with embarrassing results that end up doing a disservice to the original show.

Barratt, much like Thorncroft himself is somebody who has never really been the lead on the big screen before, but I feel he really made this film. It would be easy for Thorncroft to feel like a generic Ron Burgandy/Alan Partridge knock-off, but Barrat’s quirky mannerisms add his own unique stamp to the comic hero archetype which is most welcome. And whilst he does a great job with the one-liners and slapstick, Barratt also plays scenes with with an authentic and refreshing amount of depth and pitiable awareness of his own failings, which helps us to feel more sympathetically towards Thorncroft and root for him, despite his ego and occasional political incorrectness.

Essie Davies transitions into a comedic role rather well, as a long-suffering mother who readily admits that she was “A Totty in a shit TV show”, and has some solid chemistry with Barratt which makes their former relationship and attraction believable. Simon Farnaby (The guy from Horrible Histories) plays her husband, the stuntman who spends many of his scenes gloating at Thorncroft in his hilariously cartoonish delivery, which far from becoming grating is immensely enjoyable. Steve Coogan is in his element playing the greedy and selfish playboy Peter Easterman, who only appears in only a handful of scenes (Most notably when he invites Thorncroft over to his country club) but suitably comes over as vindictive, opportunistic and easy to dislike. Kenneth Branagh also has a pretty funny cameo as himself early on in the film, when Thorncroft does a car-crash of an audition for one of his plays.

Russell Tovey’s Kestrel is played very convincingly as an intimidating and obsessive man-child, however the tragic elements of the character are glossed over, making him feel slightly underdeveloped as a result. This wouldn’t normally be an issue but Thorncroft spends a large amount of the final act with the Kestrel and I sort of wish Barrat/Farnaby and Foley had been a bit more clear cut in deciding whether he was a source of comic relief or a tragic/sympathetic character, but Tovey makes his misguided enthusiasm and naiveness shine through and I found him endearing overall. Tovey’s final scene in particular is brilliantly performed by both himself and Barratt; the punchline is gut bustlingly funny in a very dark way which perhaps makes up for any shortfalls in his character.

Slightly confusingly, Thorncroft has two agents in the film. The first is in London and played by Harriet Walter, who has some very entertaining back-and-forth with Barratt during an establishing conversation near the beginning of the film. Thorncroft then recontacts his old drug-addicted and clearly untrustworthy agent Geoffrey Moncrieff (Richard McCabe) who lives in a caravan on the Isle of Man with his blow-up doll secretary, but although McCabe does his best with the lines given to him, I found Moncrieff’s one-note antics wearing a little thin rather quickly and his character a rather redundant plot device; I’d have much preferred to hear more from Harriet Walter’s falsely reassuring agent instead (She was much funnier) and I felt the film could have easily worked without this character, however thankfully he doesn’t feature much.

Finally there is also a stony Police Inspector played by Andrea Riseborough, but it is a rather thankless part, the only compensation is that she gets to ride a pretty awesome motorbike near the climax. Her character becomes central to a B-plot involving a corrupt mayor, which feels incredibly generic (almost like a plot lifted out of a particularly dire episode of the Mindhorn TV show itself) and sensibly the majority of this plot in the final act is focused on Riseborough’s character which keeps it fairly simple to follow.

This is the sort of film that I feel could easily be forgotten about, but I hope it does go on to cult status because I really enjoyed it. If you enjoyed Julian Barratt and the Mighty Boosh like I did, you’ll still enjoy this even though it feels a little more mainstream and little less subversive. I would really recommend it though if you’re a fan of 80’s/90’s British crime/detective shows, as anyone familiar with the tropes/actors of those shows will find a lot of familiar and hilariously affectionate gags littered throughout.

It’s not without it’s flaws, but Mindhorn is nonetheless a hugely enjoyable adventure to the Isle of Man. Strap on your bionic eyes, because it’s truth time…

Mindhorn review

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