Mindhorn review

It is not often that the Isle of Man receives much focus at all – be it in the field of film or in global affairs. Sean Foley, however, is determined to change that, and in this hit-and-miss yet merry little romp he does so through making it the centerpiece of a decidedly zany caper.

Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) is an ageing, washed-up actor who has long since had his 15 minutes of fame. In the 1980s, he starred as the eponymous Mindhorn, a dashing detective equipped with a cybernetic eye that allowed him to function as a living lie detector. In reality, things are much less grand. Thorncroft finds himself locked in a downward spiral, one that is clearly pronounced despite the film not taking itself too seriously. Down on his luck, stuck promoting DVT stockings and becoming desperate after a humorous failure of an audition, a murder in Manx territory leads to an ominous call to the police from a person known only as the Kestrel (Russel Tovey) whose obsession with the fictional sleuth's exploits lead the authorities to attempt to convince Thorncroft to become Mindhorn one last time in the hopes of cracking the case, enlisting the aid of his old flame Patricia DeVille (Essie Davis) along the way.

The premise is undeniably rather novel, a sort of peculiar rarity in a genre that so often finds itself dominated by more standard fare. Using a unique location in the Isle of Man and evoking memories of comedy troupes such as Barratt's own Mighty Boosh, it takes the weird nature of its premise and runs with it, indulging in 80s-era shlock and ridiculous antics and pitching its absurd story with poker-faced seriousness, and while it stumbles here and here in its presentation,the film still fares well. There are a number of genuinely amusing set pieces – one such example, set along one of the island's piers, is a noteworthy standout moment complete with cheerfully oblivious background noise – and being written and acted by seasoned comedians the performances are solid and the laughs, generally, are plenty. The cornerstone of any comedy, however, is its characters, and the film goes to great lengths to ensure that Thorncroft stands out in this regard.

Barratt performs admirably as Thorncroft, lending energy, a weary sort of self-awareness and genuine charm to the proceedings in equal measure. He takes the very real and yet oddly surreal scenario the film presents and embraces it, no stranger to bizarre scenarios himself, fully becoming the fulcrum around which the film's most memorable comedic moments unfold. Barratt additionally takes great care in lending an edge of subtle humanity to him, not simply portraying him as a looney trying desperately to relive his halcyon days. Underneath the enforced suaveness there is a man who resents aspects of his past and the career choices he has made – there are repeated references throughout the film towards a disastrous attempt to break into show business in Los Angeles – and a man who, when he finds himself free of restraint, can be more than a little bit spiteful to those around him. Beneath the devil-may-care exterior, Thorncroft knows what he is, and Barrett plays him in such a way that his character ends up being enhanced further by it. Unlike some comedies, there is an earnest effort at a respectable plot, and his performance makes it more compelling to watch, especially whenever he has an earnest conversation with Patricia or her daughter (Jessica Barden).

Barratt is undeniably a gifted comedian, but it helps the film when others get a chance to shine – and the surprisingly touching tale at the core of this film allows them to do that while simultaneously giving a noted boost to the film's quality. Though Barrett is always at the centre of the action, he, Davis and others such as Steve Coogan, playing Peter Eastman, Thorncroft's infinitely more successful co-star, and Richard McCabe's Geoffrey Moncrieff, his manic, crass yet supportive former agent, play off of each other well and give an array of commendable performances. It's a gathering of splendidly talented, honestly funny people, which benefits the film greatly whenever they receive focus. It is just as much of a drawback, then, when a lot of them end up being unfortunately marginalised – the movie's main error.

Here lies a noted sort of disparity that drags the film down somewhat. While much of the cast is demonstrably hilarious, there are quite a few members of the cast who receive a paltry share of screen time and subsequently get little time to show off their own abilities, or those who are eclipsed by their co-stars. The female portion of the cast, too, finds itself significantly overshadowed, chiefly by Barratt. Davis does put in a good turn as a sharp, wry counterpart to the occasionally hyperactive, manic or sometimes simply violent male portion of the cast, but she ends up lacking in any real presence for a significant part of the film.Similarly, cast members like Andrea Riseborough are criminally wasted in tragically small roles, even if Riseborough herself steals the scene whenever she finds herself at the center of it. Barden and Harriet Walker, as Thorncroft's suffering agent, lend good sparks of humor, but Barratt seems overwhelming, at times.

There are also, inevitably, some duds – sometimes the film simply ends up reaching too far for a joke, and some of the characters present are rather one note. McCabe's Geoffrey, despite his entertaining nature, mostly falls into this, and Simon Farnaby's Clive, Thorncroft's old business partner in his glory days, is good for eliciting a chuckle or two the first time he rubs his success in Richard's face, but as the film proceeds onwards and the jokes repeat, dressed up in slightly different clothes, his presence wears rather thin.The film does also end up faltering from fishing for laughs in its final furlong, and considering the lengths it went to in order to attach some appealing humanity to its protagonist, to not offer a proper resolution to his problems seems a slight disservice. It might not get in the way of enjoyment, but it would have been a nice way to conclude things.

Despite its drawbacks, however, Mindhorn is a nicely entertaining barrel of laughs that successfully executes an unconventional premise. Full of homage, humor, and humanity, this small gem is certainly worth a watch - and it will more than likely put the Isle of Man back on the map.

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Jack Gibbs is a Screenjabber contributor

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