Svengali: Edinburgh Review

Slight but charming satire held together by a delightful central characterization and performance.

Newcomer Jonny Owen writes and stars in John Hardwick's British music-biz comedy, world-premiering in competition at Edinburgh.

Essentially an excuse for audiences to spend 90 minutes with one of the most genially lovable protagonists in recent memory, Svengali is a show business satire of the breezily gentle variety. Chronicling a wide-eyed Welshman's haphazard attempts to help an unruly London rock band up the ladder of success, it's utterly dominated by big-screen newcomer Jonny Owen, the writer-producer-star expanding his own Internet-based sketches of the same title.

Worth a shot at limited theatrical release in the U.K. before what's likely to be a more profitable small-screen career, this rough-edged charmer should be checked out by the many film festivals that include music-themed sidebars in their programming. 

Owen's original five-minute webisodes form the basis for his screenplay, in which Candide-like hero Paul 'Dixie' Dean stumbles across unsigned band The Premature Congratulations (soon shortened to 'The Prems') and heads to London with his girlfriend Shell (Vicky McClure) in tow. His goal is to become their manager and mold them into superstars, following the tradition of Britain's punk/pop/rock Svengalis like Malcolm McLaren, Tony Wilson and Alan McGee.

Dixie's disarmingly direct approach and guileless enthusiasm persuade the laddish quartet to sign up with him on the spot, typical of the picture's fable-like, even Zoolander-ish disregard of plausibility. His low-tech, old-school methods, such as a reliance on C-90 audio-cassettes, attract the bemused interest of various industry bigwigs including McGee (as himself). Various complications ensue, from financial woes to family crisis, but through it all Dixie's can-do spirit and irrepressible positivity keep himself -- and the movie -- firmly on track.

The fourth feature film to bear the title Svengali, this sophomore directorial effort from John Hardwick -- after 2005's little-seen 33x Around the Sun -- bears no relation to the previous three, all adapted from George du Maurier's wildly popular 1894 novel Trilby. As well as giving the world the hat which bears the eponymous heroine's name, the book introduced the enduringly influential character of Svengali, a powerful and nefarious hypnotist whose mesmeric powers enabled Trilby to briefly become a singing sensation. 

Owen's Dixie, however, is about as benign a Svengali figure as it's possible to imagine, and it's part of the fun that such a naive and transparently genuine lad could even dream of succeeding in the nest of vipers that is the music industry. With a smile as wide as Tiger Bay, the blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked Owen -- who could easily pass for Val Kilmer's kid brother -- proves a consistently charismatic and engaging screen presence. It's an excellent breakout performance -- the type of work which eminently deserves awards recognition but which is so often overlooked when gongs are being handed out.

While very much Owen's show, McClure is nicely feisty as the other half of the picture's central romantic duo, and it's easy to forgive the slightly half-baked and excessively episodic structure of the story. The plot often seems to be little more than an excuse for a succession of "name" cameos, from The Libertines' Carl Barat to a host of faces familiar from U.K. television and independent movies.

Finding time amid his extensive Middle-earth commitments, meanwhile, Martin Freeman pops up now and again as a bumptious record-shop-owning "Mod." His fleeting contributions are fun, but arguably better value is provided by McGee, who enjoys a surprising amount of screen-time and, in what is perhaps a deliberate in-joke, is never seen without his Trilby hat.

Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival (Michael Powell Award Competition)
Production company:  Root Films
Cast: Jonny Owen, Vicky McClure, Roger Evans, Martin Freeman, Brian Hibbard
Director: John Hardwick
Screenwriter: Jonny Owen
Producers: Martin Root, Jonny Owen, Victoria Wood, Rob Small
Executive producers: Mark Pritchard, Henry Normal
Director of photography: Catherine Derry
Production designer: Caroline Steiner
Costume designer: Julie Jones
Editors: Ant Boys, Kant Pan 
Music: Ian Neil, Tristin Norwell
Sales: Root Films, London
No MPAA rating, 90 minutes