One for the future: Chris O'Dowd
Stand-out scene: Canadian troupe's grass-smelling routine
Brainer or no-brainer: Brainer
Stands up to one viewing or repeated?: Repeated
DVD commentary any good?: n/a
I hadn't heard of this movie until it was up for Best British Film at this year's Baftas (it lost out to The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and immediately flagged it up as a must-see. From the writer-director of The Book Group, Annie Griffin, it's an ensemble piece following the fortunes of disparate attendees of the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As Griffin was a former attendee, one can only guess at how close to reality the depiction of the cringeworthy Canadian drama troupe is. With Stephen Mangan now hot property following his Green Wing success his casting was a shrewd move, as was that of both Roy and Moss from the IT Crowd. A drama comedy that offers both facets in equal quantities, the cast's a combination of a who's who of British drama comedy of the last ten years and a fair cross-section of the best of the up and coming crop. Showing on Channel 4 only a year after its theatrical release, this goes to show what can be accomplished in British comedy albeit with a Canadian director. With filming taking place during and beyond the 2004 Festival, the movie has an authentic feel to it, especially when you consider that many of the comedians taking part (and Griffin included) were plugging away at the fringes of the Fringe for years. Numbering among the various
interweaving plot strands, there's the bitter relationship between a famous self-obsessed British comic and his ever-suffering assistant, an actress debuting at the festival with a one-woman show about Dorothy Wordsworth, a depressed, rich housewife who spies on the stoned Canadian theatre troupe to whom she has rented out her house, an also-ran comic at his ninth Festival who embarks on a fair with a radio presenter (and judge) and a priest with a secret. Ensemble fun.
The first character we meet is Faith (Lyndsey Marshal), a pretty young woman who is performing a one-woman play about Dorothy Wordsworth (?who?s in it?? asks one punter), while another one-person show is being staged by Brother Mike (Clive Russell), who uses his play about paedophilia to deal with his own hidden desires. An avant-garde Canadian theatre troupe are renting a room from a frustrated woman who is suffering from post-natal depression (Amelia Bullmore), and a couple of Irish stand-ups - Tommy (Chris O?Dowd) and Conor (Billy Carter) - are looking to win the big comedy competition, but they have to beat ambitious young comedienne Nicky (Lucy Punch) who will do anything to succeed. Famous TV comedian Sean Sullivan (Stephen Mangan) will be on the jury for the comedy award, and he arrives with his downtrodden assistant (Raquel Cassidy) in tow. Finally, sarcastic radio host Joan (Daniela Nardini) will be interviewing participants and commentating on the events.
Director Griffin dips in and out of these characters? stories as they cross paths over the course of the festival weekend. Her loose, semi-documentary style is a good fit for the material but the actual content of her script poses a few problems. There are a number of different story strands going on here, some stronger than others, and Griffin?s lack of discipline in choosing which ones to concentrate on makes the film feel flaccid and unfocused. The parts of the film involving Mangan?s bickering relationship with his assistant, or Nardini?s affair with O?Dowd, are smartly written and well performed. However, the trio of Canadian dancers are hopelessly underwritten and their scenes struggle to raise a single laugh. The Canadians? story also leads into the subplot which revolves around Bullmore?s staid marriage which, again, is flat, uninvolving, and feels somewhat unnecessary.
Griffin?s film is all about the thin line between comedy and tragedy, and she seems a little unsure when the time comes to cross the line. Her deviation between the comic and dramatic portions of [i]Festival[/i] are often blunt and clumsy, resulting in some jarring shifts in tone, and she also includes a number of needlessly explicit sex scenes (in particular, one involving glove puppets which is as bizarre as it is unpleasant). The director?s writing is not really strong enough to make us care for the characters in these darker moments, although many of the actors bring a welcome edge of pain to their roles.
In fact the cast is superb throughout, and most of the laughs to be had are derived from their performances. Mangan, Nardini, O?Dowd, Cassidy and Marshal make the biggest impression with perfectly-judged supporting performances from Lucy Punch and Deirdre O?Kane among others. There are occasions when [i]Festival[/i] hits the mark and raises some big laughs. Griffin?s depiction of the kind of pretentious performance that is often evident in the festival is spot-on, and I loved the jury?s bitchy arguments as they made their decisions. Unfortunately, for every joke that works there are a larger number which fall flat and [i]Festival [/i]ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
Griffin shot her film in the midst of last year?s Edinburgh festival, mixing footage of real performers into her film, and she successfully captures the energy and atmosphere of the town. It only serves to highlight what [i]Festival[/i] could have been, an exciting, absorbing and hilarious celebration of the Edinburgh festival, but it lacks directness and never really comes to life. Perhaps a straight documentary following some real Edinburgh hopefuls would have been a better bet; a more eye-opening, compelling film may have been the result. It might have turned out a good deal funnier too.