Just when multi-character criss-crossers were threatening to become passe, along comes biting Brit black comedy “Festival,” reinvigorating faith in the format. Feature by helmer-scribe Annie Griffin (creator of U.K. TV series “The Book Group”) tautly weaves together fortunes of stand-ups, thesps, journos, lovers and locals for a sharp ensemble satire set in and around an annual arts lollapalooza in Edinburgh. Bowing the weekend of July 15, “Festival” wilted in the hot weather with a $1,500 screen average on 40 domestic prints, despite almost unanimously positive reviews. Still, even without a name cast, pic might just click with sophisticated auds offshore.
Filmed mostly on location in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August 2004 while the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe were in progress, “Festival” gains atmosphere from the presence of thousands of real festival-going “extras” on the Northern city’s streets. Characters from the film are often picked out documentary-style from the crowd as they improvise in character with passers-by.
Faith (Lyndsey Marshal), first met handing out fliers for her painfully earnest one-woman show about Dorothy Wordsworth, fits in with the other shills and buskers crowding the streets of the Royal Mile. Later, radio journalist Joan Gerard (Daniela Nardini) interviews authentic festival goers, while believable crowds fill venue seats.
While the perhaps too-symbolically named Faith reps the fictional festival’s idealists, who believe in the power of art, Joan is its jaded black heart. Serving on a jury for a prestigious but unnamed comedy award (which any Edinburgh veteran will spot is meant to be the Perrier Award), Joan comes across a spectrum of stand-up comics, including arrogant fellow judge Sean Sullivan (Stephen Mangan). He’s often described as “Britain’s best-loved comic,” but he treats his assistant Petra (Raquel Cassidy) like dirt and is not above sleeping with the talent he’s judging, including fake North London Jewish Princess Nicky (Lucy Punch).
Joan is hardly more principled, given that she nonchalantly beds desperate-to-win Irish stand-up Tommy O’Dwyer (Chris O’Dowd).
Less convincing is lawyer’s wife Micheline (Amelia Bullmore) renting out her posh apartment to a troupe of space-cadet Canadian thesps (“You could so do yoga in here,” one says wide-eyed about the high-ceilinged space, “or Movement!”) and then falling in love with one of them (Jonah Lotan).
More successful but much darker strand concerns Brother Mike (Clive Russell, affecting), a clergyman whose own one-man show about priests and sexual abuse hints at demons barely kept in check.
Indeed, the storylines end somewhere between humiliation or tragedy for nearly everyone, but Griffin’s tart brand of humor keeps the pic from becoming a downer. Ironically, the speech that feels closest to being the author’s message is a rant Joan vents at her fellow judges decrying culture’s constant need for humor to deflect seriousness.
Since the pic’s most despicable characters rise to the top, another point made is that talent is often in inverse proportion to goodness of heart. Although comparisons to Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and other multi-character comedy-dramas are inevitable, pic’s cruel spirit is closest to Brit TV comedy at its best (“The Office,” or even “Fawlty Towers”) — though helmer-writer Griffin hails originally from the U.S.
Ensemble thesping is fine, with especially impressive turns by those playing comics, given that they allegedly wrote their own “onstage” material. Nardini, star of cult Brit TV series “This Life,” fearlessly stripping to reveal an average womanly figure, shines in the lynchpin role of world-weary Joan. But Griffin ensures even the most minor character adds a sparkle.
Editing by William Webb ensures 107-minute running time seldom drags, while mostly handheld lensing by Danny Cohen successfully keeps the pic from looking like TV fodder.