With one eye on the absurd, and one eye on the truth, Mindhorn, is a consistently hilarious and rewarding British comedy from Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby.
The central character of Mindhorn is Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), an actor who once played Bruce Mindhorn in the titular hit 80’s TV detective show. Mindhorn centred on a former MI5 agent who was captured by the enemy and had his left eye replaced with a super-advanced optical lie detector, which meant that he could literally ‘see the truth’.
After escaping to the Isle of Man, Mindhorn becomes the best goddam detective the island has ever seen. Sexy and suave with his orange leather jacket and turtle-neck; men want to be him and women want to sleep with him. And they probably are.
Just like Mindhorn, back in the 80s Thorncroft’s career and private life were heading to stratospheric heights. He had everything he wanted; money, fortune, fame, Wogan appearances and even the love of his Mindhorn co-star, Patricia Deville.
But cut to 25 years later and things are looking substantially less golden than Mindhorn’s perma-tan. Thorncroft is a washed-up actor who never managed to hit the big league. He’s overweight, out of work and living in a dingy flat in Walthamstow. Things are pretty bad. But then he gets a call from the Isle of Man constabulary asking for his help in a murder case where he’ll need to play TV hero Mindhorn one last time. Maybe now he can finally regain his fame and glory?
Mindhorn takes an affectionate yet ‘truthful’ glance at quaint British detective shows, such as Bergerac or Midsomer Murders, while mixing it up with the more action-packed US shows like The Six Million Dollar Man. As much as we loved those often cheesy programmes featuring heroes with unorthodox policies and impossible weapons, the film recognises they were mostly ridiculous but still brilliant at the same time. And this ridiculousness is perfectly summed up in the character of Thorncroft who, 25 years later, is still clinging to the coat tails of that impossible character.
Written by Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh fame, and Simon Farnaby, from Horrible Histories and Bunny and the Bull, you’d naturally expect Mindhorn to be an offbeat, goofy comedy packed with oddball characters that will make you chuckle a bit. And it is definitely that. But I was surprised by how truly funny it was, there’s a huge amount of proper laugh-out-loud moments, some excellent throw away lines, and general tittering throughout. There hasn’t been such a consistently hilarious British comedy for years.
Thorncroft’s interactions with the rest of his acquaintances (you’d struggle to call them friends) are the embodiment of social ineptitude and clumsy awkwardness that British writers seem to capture so well. But the beauty of Mindhorn is not only how well-crafted the script is, but just how it manages to elevate scenes of Gervais-style cringeyness into something far more rewarding.
The jokes are expertly crafted in terms of wrong-footing your expectations, with set-ups regularly leading to satisfyingly unexpected pay-offs. Some of the best scenes are between Barratt’s Thorncroft and Farnaby’s Dutch stunt-man Clive Parnevik, who now lives in Thorncroft’s old house and sleeps with his ex-girlfriend Patricia instead. The way that Parnevik pours salt into that very open wound and then viciously rubs it in with a sledgehammer is brilliant.
There are some great performances from the rest of the cast too. Steve Coogan plays an actor who had a minor role in Mindhorn in the 80s but who actually DID manage to cash in on his fame and is now a smug business man with a line in self-branded waterproof jackets. Obviously Mindhorn hates him. Russell Tovey plays the deluded murder suspect with a Mindhorn obsession, who manages to illicit some affection despite the constant kestrel calls. And there are great cameos from Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow, both playing themselves and both sending up their ‘serious thesp’ personas wonderfully. “Mindhorn was your Amadeus,” Says Callow to Thorncroft, before undercutting it with, “Of course my Amadeus was Amadeus.”
Mindhorn is surprisingly complex, but satisfyingly water-tight, thanks to some great writing from Barratt and Farnaby. You can tell the script has been a labour of love, and the storylines and jokes have been honed to perfection over a number of years. It puts to shame the “hey lets turn up to set and see what happens” comedies of Ferrell and friends.
With its love of the source material, a thorough commitment to tickling your funny-bone and richly nuanced characters, Mindhorn more than deserves to be the next great British cult comedy – it should be a global phenomenon. I’ve already sent off for my custom-made eye patch. 4/5
Please note, this review was originally published last October as part of our London Film Festival coverage.