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Non-Review Review: Mindhorn

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The first half of Mindhorn is a pretty enjoyable British show business farce.

Richard Thorncroft is a failed British character, struggling to keep his career alive following a run on the cult eighties television show Mindhorn. Throncroft made his name playing the eponymous detective with a bionic eye that literally allowed him to see the truth. Inevitably Thorncroft ended up washed up and forgotten, a failed star crashing to Earth. When he is offered one last job, he is forced to return to Mindhorn both literally and figuratively. It is a fairly standard set-up, with Mindhorn reveling in Thorncroft’s lack of self-awareness and decency.

Not a patch on Bergerac.

Not a patch on Bergerac.

However, the second half of Mindhorn is something to behold, as this familiar set-up gives way to a high-energy surrealist farce.

Around midway through the film, Mindhorn makes a sharp pivot into something altogether more outlandish than the familiar British “failed celebrity” farce and evolves into something much less grounded and familiar. The result is one of the most enjoyable comedies in recent memory, and a cult film in waiting. As Thorncraft finds himself wading deeper and deeper into the chaos and insanity, Mindhorn feels like a psychological horror played as absurdist comedy. The result is nothing short of astounding.

King of the Beach.

King of the Beach.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the first half of Mindhorn. Indeed, the film’s first forty-five minutes lay a lot of the essential groundwork for the film’s rollercoaster second half, establishing characters and relationships in such a way that Mindhorn can just barrel through the insanity that is to come. And those forty-five minutes are very solid. The script is the product of director Sean Foley and lead actor Julian Barratt, and it is packed with lots of clever jokes and very effective set-ups, elevated by a game cast.

In particular, Barratt does very good work in the lead role. Mindhorn is anchored in Richard Thorncroft, the ego-centric celebrity who drives the narrative as he finds himself drafted back into the role that made him famous and forced to return to the Isle of Man to help catch a serial killer who demands to speak with the fictional detective. Barratt threads a very fine needle with Thorncroft, ensuring that the character is at once easy to hate but also worthy of pity. Barratt never downplays Thorncroft’s ego and self-absorption, but also suggests a perverse innocence.

Isle of What-a-Man.

Isle of What-a-Man.

At the same time, there is a sense that the first half of Mindhorn is treading very familiar ground. There is a weird British subgenre of awkward comedies about washed-up former celebrities, with recent entries including Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and David Brent: Life on the Road. In fact, Steve Coogan even offers Mindhorn something of an endorsement, appearing in a small role as the star of the cult detective show’s seventeen-seasons-and-still-running spin-off, Windjammer. Thorncroft is a very clear descendant of British comedy characters like Partridge and Brent.

Indeed, the first half of Mindhorn very consciously evokes any number of (in)famous television leading men, casting Thorncroft as some hideously monstrous combination of the most obnoxious mid-tier celebrities in living memory. The Isle of Man setting of Mindhorn recalls the improbable ten seasons that Bergerac spent on Jersey. Thorncroft’s television interview trashing the series’ filming location is straight from the David Duchovny playbook. Thorncroft’s short and troubled relationship with his co-star channels Tom Baker’s time on Doctor Who.

Taking a sidekick under his wing.

Taking a sidekick under his wing.

None of this is bad. The cast are solid, the gags are funny, and Barratt is suitably charming. There are a number of nice celebrity cameos from figures who prove themselves up for some nice jokes. However, there is a sense of familiarity to the set-up. Indeed, “washed-up celebrity wanders into the middle of a life-or-death situation in a small community” was pretty much the exact plot of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. The first half of Mindhorn is enjoyable, if nothing particularly specially.

However, things take a turn around the midpoint of the film, as Mindhorn goes completely insane. And it is magnificent. The second half of Mindhorn is a work of demented genius, a high-energy comedic tour de force that embraces absurdity and just keeps going. While the first half hints at Thorncroft’s troubled relationship with the role that defined him, the second half literalises it. For all that Thorncroft spends the first half of the film worrying that he has been trapped by his iconic role, the second half literalises it in a gloriously over-the-top manner.

Must dasche.

Must dasche.

The second half of Mindhorn is ridiculously unhinged, existing in a delightfully weird space between a psychological horror and a riotous comedy as Thorncroft finds himself repeatedly thrown into a number of heightened scenarios that blur the line between actor and character. All of this is laid over a familiar chase-movie template, meaning that the second half of Mindhorn goes like the clappers as Thorncroft finds himself racing around the Isle of Man in a grotesque recreation of his most famous role.

Mindhorn has the making of a cult comedy in waiting. It is a movie that demands to be enjoyed with a large audience of like-minded individuals, chuckling even through the second half’s exposition at the demented energy of the film. Mindhorn is a joy.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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4 Responses

  1. Great review.

    Loved the film a lot more than I expected to, a wonderful farce. I’m a huge Alan Partridge fan so that aspect certainly helped me get into the film before, as you point out everything went nuts.

    I particulary love how cheap ‘Mindhorn’ (the show within the film) looks and how no attempt whatsoever was made to make the actors look younger for their 1989 selves (Essie Davie and Simon Farnaby even look YOUNGER ‘twenty five years later’).

    • Yep. I though the first half was grand. I think we’ve talked before about how that sort of cringe lack-of-self-awareness comedy can be hit-or-miss for me personally. I love Partridge, but Brent is too far for me. I though the first half stayed just on the right side of the line for me. But, yeah, the second half was a thing of beauty.

  2. Great review, glad to be reading good things about this! Though struggling to find a way to watch the damn thing…

    • It’ll be out on home media soon, I hope. I don’t know where you’re based, but I do expect a small UK and Irish theatrical run at least. I know Studio Canal are quite enthused about it as a potential cult hit.

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