Comedy brings together some unlikely bedfellows, as this debut feature by award-winning theater director Sean Foley proves. World premiering at the London Film Festival this week, Mindhorn boasts Ridley Scott and Steve Coogan among its executive producers. Coogan also plays a supporting role, while Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow, who have both worked with Foley on stage, make brief cameos as themselves. But this agreeably absurd farce is primarily a vehicle for its co-writers and co-stars, Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby, who have a long shared history, most notably on BBC television’s surreal cult sitcom The Mighty Boosh.
Conveniently set on the Isle of Man, a popular shooting location thanks to its film-friendly tax incentives, Mindhorn stars Barratt as Richard Thorncroft, an actor who enjoyed brief fame in the 1980s playing a TV detective who fights criminals with a bionic eyepatch that can literally “see the truth.” Think David Hasselhoff circa Knight Rider, but with an English accent and a Tom Selleck moustache. Brits will enjoy more local reference points, chiefly the vintage Jersey-set cop series Bergerac. Foley directs with a light and snappy touch, even when the jokes become strained. StudioCanal’s U.K. release next spring should generate healthy numbers domestically, although the in-jokey British humor may prove a tougher sell internationally.
An arrogant, boozy womanizer at the peak of his fame, Thorncroft threw his TV career away with a hubristic bid for Hollywood success that went nowhere. Fast-forward 25 years and he is now a paunchy, balding, increasingly desperate washed-up actor living in poverty in London. Adding insult to injury, his glamorous ex-girlfriend and Mindhorn co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) is now a highly successful TV reporter on the Isle of Man, and happily married to Thorncroft’s former stunt double Clive Parnevik (Farnaby). Another minor character from the show, played by Coogan, has also built a business empire on the back of his own long-running spinoff series.
But fate hands Thorncroft a bizarre chance at redemption when a mentally unbalanced fugitive killer on the Isle of Man, Melly (Russell Tovey), contacts police officer DC Baines (Andrea Riseborough) and demands to negotiate with Mindhorn himself. Obsessed with the TV show since childhood, Melly has come to believe the fictional detective is real, and can help prove his innocence. Thorncroft arrives on the island in high spirits, hoping to boost his profile and rekindle his relationship with Patricia. Inevitably, his plans unravel as ancient grievances, bad habits and murderous subplots muddy the waters.
The first act of Mindhorn bounces along on the sheer silliness of its inspired premise, which feels like Galaxy Quest with an extra shot of English beta-male tragicomedy. But around the midway point, the script starts to flag a little, like a great satirical skit overstretched to feature length. Initially a spoof of clunky TV police thriller conventions, Foley’s film ends up deploying them liberally in its latter half to inject a little labored suspense and contrived jeopardy. Both Coogan and Riseborough are disappointingly underused in thin minor roles, while Doctor Who veteran Tovey is simply too affably goofy to be plausible as a dangerous psychopath.
All the same, Mindhorn is never less than good fun. Barratt’s world-weary, deadpan delivery anchors his performance in emotional truth, even in his most zany slapstick scenes, and he shares a strong comic chemistry with Farnaby. The spoof clips from the fake TV show are lovingly realized, from their scratchy VHS texture to their stiffly melodramatic tone and period-perfect sexism. A spinoff small-screen series would be a deliciously ironic touch. Credit also is due to the Isle of Man’s majestically rugged coastal scenery, proudly playing itself after decades of standing in for more exotic locales. The eternal bridesmaid of movie locations finally gets its glorious day at the altar.
Venue: London Film Festival
Production companies: BBC Films, Isle of Man Film, Pinewood Pictures, Scott Free Productions, Baby Cow, StudioCanal
Cast: Julian Barratt, Essie Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Simon Farnaby, Steve Coogan, Russell Tovey, Richard McCabe, Jessica Barden, Nicholas Farrell, Harriet Walter
Director: Sean Foley
Screenwriters: Julian Barratt, Simon Farnaby
Cinematographer: David Luther
Editor: Mark Everson
Music: Keefus Ciancia, David Holmes
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
Not rated, 89 minutes