Mindhorn review: Julian Barratt stars in a very British spin on the TV cop

It’s engaging and funny enough but can’t ever quite shake off the suspicion that it’s an idea stretched beyond its means - a story better suited to the small screen than to the cinema

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The Independent Culture

(15) Sean Foley, 89 mins, starring: Julian Barratt, Essie Davis, Andrea Riseborough, Harriet Walter, Simon Callow, David Schofield

It’s not entirely clear whether Mindhorn is a send-up of 70s and 80s action TV dramas like The Saint, The Persuaders and The Professionals – or a celebration of them. It’s every bit as cheesy and parochial as the shows it is lampooning.

Whatever the case, the comedy, like its hapless actor and TV detective hero Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt of TV’s The Mighty Boosh), manages by turns both to be funny and charming and seedy and dispiriting.

Thorncroft in the present-day is a washed-up figure. He lives in a London bedsit. He has a toupee. He’s thick around the midriff. The days when he was playing a dashing, womanising MI5 operative with a laser eye on the Isle Of Man in the politically incorrect 1980s seem a very long time in the past.

His agent (Harriet Walter) barely tolerates him. The only work he can get is in commercials for old age pensioners but even that is drying up.

Mindhorn - Trailer

Mindhorn follows in a long tradition of British comedies celebrating ineptitude and self-delusion. The trick for director Sean Foley and screenwriters Barrett and Simon Farnaby is in squeezing the humour out of Thorncroft’s misadventures without allowing the film to descend to the level of its hapless hero.

Generally, they’re successful in this, even if the plot that they’ve contrived is on the half-baked side. We know from the moment that we see Thorncroft at his most abject, looking at himself in the mirror and snipping his nasal hairs, that’s he is bound to achieve redemption.

This is a very self-reflexive affair. It contains in-jokes within in-jokes within in-jokes. The humour works through layers of irony and a gentle sarcasm. There is a huge gulf between the escapist world of Mindhorn the TV show, a world in which Thorncroft still lives in his imagination, and the reality of the actor’s life.

The Isle of Man, where most of the film unfolds, is a long way removed from the glamour of 70s spy movies. As depicted here, it’s a determinedly provincial place where the skies are grey, the buses don’t come on time and the police are over-worked.

Barratt plays Thorncroft/Mindhorn in a thoroughly engaging way. With a magnificent masher of a moustache, he’s like an old actor-manager, still very dashing and conceited in spite of his vastly reduced circumstances.

The storyline involves him being called back to the Isle of Man to help the police with a real-life crime mystery. There’s a suspected killer on the loose who calls himself the Kestrel and he’s every bit as delusional as Mindhorn himself. This not-so-master master criminal will only deal with Mindhorn - and doesn’t appear to realise that the detective/secret agent is just a TV character.

Back on the Isle of Man after such a long absence, Mindhorn has to confront the ghosts of his past. There’s Patricia (Essie Davis), the woman he once loved, who’s now a top local TV reporter. She is married to his old stunt man (Farnaby speaking in a camp South African accent), who loathes him heartily.

Mindhorn Clip - Audition

They have a sulky teenage daughter. (Mindhorn suspects he might be the father.) Also still on the island is rival TV personality Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan in a slightly pointless cameo), whose career has soared even as that of Mindhorn has plummeted.

In essence, this is a series of TV comedy sketches strung together rather than a coherent movie. At least, these are often funny. Mindhorn makes a wonderfully incompetent crime fighter, keeping the suspect waiting so long on a telephone call that the suspect hangs up in a huff.

He is both often the butt of the joke and the one whose actions cause chaos and humiliation in the lives of others. He’s a very metropolitan type, too. Even at the most fraught moments in the case, he’ll ask his police handlers to get him an Americano - and to make sure it is with hot milk. He’s cowardly and, belying his image as a Steve McQueen-like action hero, can’t even drive properly.

This is one of those movies in which the minor characters all seem to be played by celebrities. Kenneth Branagh (“the B man, Kenny B!”) is seen briefly as himself, looking on aghast as Thorncroft auditions to play Othello. Simon Callow also appears as himself.

Andrea Riseborough has a more significant if still very silly role, as a Manx policewoman who knows how to use a gun and is a close associate of the very smarmy mayor (Nicholas Farrell).

Mindhorn follows in a lengthy parade of low budget British screen comedy about nincompoopish underdogs. It’s engaging and funny enough but can’t ever quite shake off the suspicion that it’s an idea stretched beyond its means - a story better suited to the small screen than to the cinema.

Mindhorn hits UK cinemas 5 May.