Celebrating Mindhorn, a home-grown comedy gem

Julian Barratt in Mindhorn
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Mindhorn is an underrated gem from writers and stars Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby – here’s why you should spare some time to watch it. 

Richard Thorncroft is Mindhorn. At least, he used to be. “What is Mindhorn?” Well, there’s the problem. A treat of a British film that’s had nowhere near the eyeballs it deserves.

In May 2017, the British film Mindhorn was released in cinemas across the UK. Written by Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby of The Mighty Boosh and Paddington 2 fame, respectively, this comedy followed an aged, out-of-touch actor desperate to return to his glory days by catching a real killer.

The basic plot? Richard Thorncroft, played by Julian Barratt, was once a successful actor and star of a TV show, Mindhorn. It was about Detective Bruce Mindhorn, who was successful at catching villains due to his futuristic bionic eye that could ‘literally see the truth’. We’re first introduced to Thorncroft during a day of filming on the Isle of Man, showing him to be the obnoxious, self-serving, but popular celebrity you would expect from a cheesy 1980s show.

We then see a short montage of interviews and ‘behind the fame’ type clips documenting his rise and fall from grace, before we meet present day Thorncroft in his miniscule London flat. The once desirable and well known actor is now an overweight, balding nuisance to everyone he meets. After another failed audition and a meeting with his long suffering agent, he’s given a unique opportunity. The police on the Isle of Man are hunting a real life killer who appears to be mentally unstable and will only talk to Mindhorn’. The killer, due to childhood trauma, has become convinced that Mindhorn the character is in fact a real person.

Reluctantly agreeing, Thorncroft sets off to rediscover fame. I mean, find a killer. After all, what better way to reinvent yourself than to be your old fictional self while helping solve an actual crime? Upon his arrival on the Isle of Man, Thorncroft manages to split the story into multiple threads, putting himself central to all of them. He is the hero seeking the dangerous criminal Paul Melly (Russell Tovey), he is the celebrity seeking renewed fame and attention, and he is the lover hoping to rekindle a romance with former actor and current news anchor Patricia Deville (The Babadook’s Essie Davis).

I love the film, but I do want to address up front the couple of problems with it. I’ve seen countless reviews of Mindhorn since its premiere at London Film Festival in 2016, and only a handful were negative. Overall, the few unhappy reviews focused on two elements of the film. I can understand their criticisms, but also would like to look at them from a different perspective.

Julian Barratt in Mindhorn

Julian Barratt as Richard Thorncroft

One complaint was the lack of female characters. As a strong feminist, I can absolutely appreciate that the cast was heavy on the testosterone. Essentially, there were only two main female characters, and they unfortunately met gender stereotypes – the glamorous and feminine Pat Deville whose career has been focused on being in front of the camera, and the slightly more unkempt and ‘tomboyish’ DS Elena Baines (Andrea Riseborough).

The other complaint was the lack of attention and emphasis on what you might think is the main plot thread – the search for wanted killer, Paul Melly – and the speed at which that part of the narrative and the ending came about. I’m cautious not to give spoilers, but the ending is a little sudden and strange if you are expecting a typical drawn out, action-packed fight worthy of Tom Cruise.

However, as frustrating as those two valid complaints are, I want to consider them from a different point of view.

The point of the film is that Richard Thorncroft is searching for his ideal life, his former glory days. Thorncroft is a has-been who’s downtrodden and lost without the adulation he had become accustomed to 25 years earlier. Having gotten used to people fawning over him and having a beautiful woman on his arm, he is now an older single man settling for advertising ads aimed at hiding the signs of aging in men. “Thank God for Thrombisocks”.

He is using the opportunity to catch Paul Melly – aka The Kestrel – not as a way to help the community, but as a publicity stunt. Enlisting his former agent, he’s hoping to both use and impress Pat Deville, is excited to get one over on his nemeses Clive Parnevik (Simon Farnaby) and Peter Easterman (Steve Coogan), and is imagining his future heroic status. The film is all about the Mindhorn star and is being told from his point of view.

Simon Farnaby in Mindhorn

Simon Farnaby as Clive Parnevik

Given his propensity for making the story all about him and who he was in the 80s (when sexism and celebrity was a little more casually accepted), it makes sense that his version of it focuses on him more than any of his ‘supporting players’ or the storyline. He is, after all, the star. I feel like these aspects, that may have frustrated a small portion of the audience, actually give more insight into Richard Thorncroft.

Aside from this, the film was very well received and was a hit with audiences across the board. Full disclosure: I, myself, had already seen it four times at special screenings before it hit general release and it always got a fantastic reaction, with multiple laugh out loud moments and a rapturous applause during the credits.

Mindhorn works on many levels. Not simply for the story, but because it’s nicely British. The cast list includes appearances from Harriet Walter, Kenneth Branagh, and Simon Callow. The humour offered to us is sarcastic, sometimes indirect and slow burning, awkward, and in some cases a little outdated… but it works in context.

There are some absolutely classic moments, such as Richard Thorncroft being caught in a lie about his whereabouts by his almost naked love rival, Clive Parnevik. Another time he’s on the beach, duct taped into his Mindhorn outfit with a superglued wig and padded muscles, and doing the Jinga (a Capoeira move) to incapacitate the villain. And how often do you hear of the little old Isle of Man as a movie location?

Perhaps you’re a little intrigued by it, if you’ve not seen it? Well, sadly, Mindhorn was not the hit it was hoped and expected to be, despite rave reviews and the very non-British behaviour of audiences vocally reacting in cinemas. And it’s such a gem. Personally, this film is on my list of ‘must watch movies’ whenever I’m feeling down.

You’re truly missing out if you haven’t seen Mindhorn yet. If you have already seen and loved it, please help spread the word about this home grown gem – it took approximately ten years for Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby to bring this baby from conception to graduation. And if you were one of the few who have seen it and had criticisms about it, perhaps give it a second watch and see it from the light-hearted point of view of Richard Thorncroft, actor extraordinaire. You might see the whole thing differently.

And in these turbulent times, who doesn’t need a good giggle?

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