Opening Night of the 2017 Derby Film Festival – Mindhorn!

by Elliot Davies

Mindhorn Derby Film Festival 2017

Mindhorn is a breathless crime-fighting romp across the Isle of Man. It’s an endearing group effort that’s taken to another level by a strong central performance by Julian Barratt, and by a jovial Derby Film Festival audience.

Julian Barratt is Richard Thorncroft, and Richard Thorncroft is Mindhorn.

Mindhorn is the title character from a late 80s detective show set on the Isle of Man. He’s got a robot eye that enables him to literally “see the truth”. He’s primed to be an “actor for the 90s”, but… you know the story: arrogance, drink, hubris. 25 years later, he’s balder, paunchier, and only able to find work in commercials for mobility products.

But there’s been a bad murder on the Isle of Man, and the chief suspect will only talk to Mindhorn! So after a few moments of uhming and ahhing, Richard decides to wig-up and return to his old island home. Mindhorn’s back! It’s truth time once again!

Mindhorn relies on a lot of tropes that will be familiar to anyone with an interest in 21st century British comedy: the naff 80s TV show with a bumbling, delusion lead who hasn’t moved on; the foul-mouthed drunkard who lives in a caravan; the obsessive fan with a disturbing cavernous shrine in his house; the sleazy older gent with a penchant for porn and a tendency to wear little more than a pair of frayed denim shorts that are a little too short.

Also, some of the characters seem a little too familiar. Richard Thorncroft/Mindhorn comes across as an amalgam of Alan Partridge, Tommy Saxondale, Steven Toast, Garth Marenghi and, of course, Howard Moon. Steve Coogan plays a role that’s almost identical to the role he played opposite Rob Brydon in the 2002 TV film Cruise of the Gods. He’s the co-star made-good, a painful reminder of what Richard could have been.

With so much that’s so familiar, Mindhorn’s success depends on its cast, its writing, and its performances. Happily, almost everything delivers. The cast is full of familiar faces from the small screen, with a couple of prestigious cameos, and everyone seems relaxed yet committed. Indeed, click around the IMDb profiles of the main cast and the same shows and films appear again and again.

Mindhorn’s like a group of friends gathered to have some laughs. There’s a real easiness to everything. It’s like nobody’s taking anything particularly seriously. For a story this ridiculous, this laid-back attitude transforms what could have been a forgettable B-Movie into something altogether more lovable.

The script, by Julian Barratt and good friend/co-star Simon Farnaby, is as fun as you’d expect it to be, given it was written by Mighty Boosh and Horrible Histories alumni.

Some characters are underwritten, and the central murder mystery is undercooked and badly-paced. If you’re here for the plot, you might reach the end and find yourself asking “is that it?”  

But Mindhorn’s a film that climaxes with over-saturated footage of inexplicable martial arts on an Isle of Man beach. The plot takes a back seat to the hijinks, and the hijinks are frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

Mindhorn Derby Film Festival 2017 2

At times, Mindhorn looks and feels a little too much like Magicians, the haggard big-screen outing for Mitchell & Webb that’s yet to be reappraised as a forgotten cult classic. This might be because of the bleak setting – the Isle of Man is made to look like a more upscale Craggy Island. Or it might be due to the relative inexperience of director Sean Foley. At the time of writing he only appears to have one other directing job under his belt, and that was a Jason Manford Halloween TV special. First-time directors often work miracles, but the pacing problems of Mindhorn suggest that Foley still has a lot to learn.

But any time things start to feel a little too lacklustre, in comes another ridiculous line delivered with ridiculous conviction in the middle of another ridiculous set-piece. Like I said, most of the performances are solid, but Julian Barratt effortlessly steals every scene he’s in – and he’s in almost every single scene. He’s one of those rare comic actors who can play both the clown and the straight man, and he frequently plays both at the same time.

Yet more than anything else, what really made Mindhorn special – or at least, this specific screening of Mindhorn – was the audience reaction. The room was about three quarters full, and a festive mood prevailed. Everyone seemed open to having a good time, and the effect was like being in the live studio audience of a classic sitcom. The laughter was frequent, uproarious, and infectious. It felt like everyone arrived in a good mood, but left in an even better mood.

So Mindhorn was the perfect choice for the opening night of the 2017 Derby Film Festival. When introducing the film, Quad Executive Adam Buss spoke of how eager they were to preview this film, and of how long it took to secure the rights. Their efforts paid off: It was a special night with a great atmosphere, and it set the mood for what I’m convinced will be an excellent 10 days of film.