Dir/scr: Annie Griffin.UK. 2005 107mins.
Festival is a deceptive affair. Early on, as we're introduced to agallery of aspiring comedians and actors, Annie Griffin's debut feature looksset to turn into a grating celebration of the Edinburgh Festival (the largestarts festival in the world) in all its full carnivalesque glory. There issomething exasperating about the performers, all desperate to grab anaudience's attention, all needy and narcissistic.

The prospect of spending anentire feature film in their presence looms as a terrible trial of endurance -but thankfully it quickly becomes apparent that Griffin is not so much tryingto make us like them as analyse just what makes them tick.

Shot on the quick, withhand-held cameras and constant close-ups, the film has a claustrophobic,documentary-like feel. Beyond the sweeping crane shot which closes the movie (ayoung performer shown running down Princes Street in a rush to get to thetheatre in time for her one-woman show), there are few formal flourishes.

But what Griffin does offeris plenty of caustic dialogue, some memorably grotesque set-pieces (witness thepuppeteer being fisted in the shop window) and a depth of characterisationrarely found in contemporary British screen comedy.

Festival is released in the UK on July 16, coinciding withthe launch of the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival programme. It is likely to reachits biggest audience through UK British (where Griffin already has asubstantial following thanks to her Channel 4 comedy The Book Group).That said, strong critical support should help propel it theatrically overseas.

This is an Altman-styleensemble piece. As the story begins to the sound of discordant bagpipes, theartists and hucksters are descending on Edinburgh.

Faith (Lyndsey Marshall) isa frizzy-haired, Bo Peep-like ingenue, staging a one-woman show about DorothyWordsworth. The dreamy Rick (Jonah Lotan) is part of an avant garde Canadiantheatre collective which has taken up residence in an Edinburgh New Town flat.Brother Mike (Clive Russell) is a priest with unholy longings.

Irish comedian Tommy O'Dwyer(Chris O'Dowd) is a rambling, seemingly genial monologist who gets very pricklywhen he is reminded of just how long he has been on the circuit. The supremelyoleaginous Sean Sullivan (Stephen Mangan) is an established celebrity also onthe comedy awards jury, who treats everyone with disdain, even Nicky (LucyPunch), the nubile comedienne with whom he begins an affair.

All these characters couldeasily have seemed like wafer-thin stereotypes, but Griffin pushes beyond theirouter guises and tries to give a sense of what really motivates them. Tommy andNicky, it soon becomes apparent, are so obsessed with winning the comedy awardthat they will sleep with jurors to boost their chances. The sex scenes arebawdy and surprisingly frank.

Griffin conveys the egotismof her protagonists by showing again and again how they put their own careersabove their relationships. Tommy is quite ready to interrupt his lovemaking atthe crucial point to take an important call on his cellphone. Even the demure,daffodil-toting, Wordsworth-fixated Faith places performing above romance.

Griffin offers an image ofthe Edinburgh Festival a long way removed from the event as portrayed intartan-brocaded tourist brochures. There is something hellish about a city sofull of preening prima donnas, all craving their moment in the limelight andall oblivious to the everyday world around them.

As Festival makespainfully clear, the days when the Edinburgh fringe revolved around Polishstreet theatre and idealistic student productions of Ibsen are long gone. Forcomedians, Edinburgh is a networking opportunity at which meeting agents andimpressing critics is as important as pleasing audiences. With the comedy awardjury scenes, in which everyone is talking at cross purposes, Griffin shows upthe absurdity of trying to commodify and classify something as elusive ashumour.

The characters are soself-obsessed that they risk forfeiting any viewer's, sympathy, but there iscomedy and pathos in their constant striving. By holding shots for so long andby concentrating so intently on the actors' faces, the writer-director is ableto show the anguish and occasional moments of doubt they suffer in pursuit ofglory. Though the comedy at their expense is often viciously cruel (especiallyat the chaotic prize-giving ceremony), she has a residual affection for themand appreciates that it requires courage to stand up alone in front of anaudience.

Just occasionally, theirperformances do work. Against the odds, the deeply pretentious Canadian troupeachieve a few magical moments on stage. There is even a certain piquancy to thescenes in which Faith forlornly gives out daffodils to her audience members.Griffin's point seems clear enough - without their neuroses and near-autisticself-obsession, these performers simply wouldn't be able to function.

Production companies
Young Pirates Film
The UK Film Council
Scottish Screen
Young Pirates Film

International sales
Portman Film

UK distribution

Executive producers
Robert Jones
Tessa Ross
Anita Cox

Christopher Young

William Webb

Danny Cohen

Main cast
Amelia Bulmore
Billy Carter
Raquel Cassidy
Megan Dodds
Duncan Duff
Jonah Lotan
Meredith Macneill
Stephen Mangan
Lyndsey Marshall
Stuart Milligan
Daniela Nardini
Chris O'Dowd
Deirdre O'Kane
Dorothy Paul
Lucy Punch
Clive Russell