Simon Amstell, comedian and writer, created something of a buzz when his first foray into writing with Grandma’s House and then Carnage appeared on the BBC to critical acclaim.
In contrast, the utopian world of Carnage, where the world considers meat-eating as awful as cannibalism, is a long distance from his latest feature, Benjamin. Personal, self-reflective and critical of his own failings, Benjaminis a smart, entertaining film that, while funny and unique, is a tad pedestrian and fails to truly grasp the profound sentiments it desperately wants to reach.
Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is completing his second film, “No Self”. He has trouble looking at the bigger picture and questions, weeks before its festival debut, whether enormous edits can be made. His own love life is reflected in the film as he ponders thoughtful questions and watches monks on YouTube. But, on a chance night out, things change when he meets the youthful and musically talented Noah (Phénix Brossard). Sweetly flirting and getting to know each other through magic mushrooms and porridge, the two start a relationship – but it is initially too soon for Noah. Benjamin buries himself into his work, entertains himself with fleeting romances and struggles to know how he can continue his life with no clarity or guidance.
“You’ve done a good thing, now you can rest” is the type of thing Benjamin aches to hear. Anxious and relatable, Benjamin is a tortured soul. Part-Simon-Amstell himself in his floppy hair and part-Dylan-Moran in his Irish deadpan cynicism, he is desperately trying to bear his soul in his work but is simultaneously aware that something isn’t clicking. Is Noah the spark of inspiration that leads his mind to curious and exciting places? He watches Noah perform and, in Amstel’s direction, it is clear that the control, sensitivity and skill is unlike the films that Benjamin creates. In contrast, in a cameo from Ellie Kendrick (Press, Game of Thrones), he scoffs at the pretentiousness of her interpretive dance piece “Womb”. Benjamin’s films are surely not that vapid?
By judging performance art as laughable while a pianist in a prestigious school is considered vastly superior reveals a somewhat snobby ranking of what is and isn’t true to its creator. Thankfully, Benjamin does enjoy a few side-stories and promising sequences that are engaging. As a child of the nineties, this reviewer can thoroughly appreciate the comedy use of Hanson and Vanessa Carlton, for example. His awkward encounter with a photographer and journalist is a hilarious encounter as it is littered with a knowing awareness of the farce that publicity can be. Painfully, comedian pal Stephen (Joel Fry) is undergoing his own crisis after a one-night stand fails to lead to anything. The brief moments we spend with him are heartbreaking and among the strongest sequences in the film. While Morgan and Fry are strong, there are sometimes uncertain performances that fail to match their standard.
As a whole, Benjamin is fine. It is not a mess or an uninspired creation, it just seems to lack momentum and suffers from a lead we can’t truly get on board with. Benjamin is a bit of a bore and his self-important character is not made up by the witty jokes that fill in the gaps. But Benjamin feels like an experiment, including a collection of unconnected scenes that, independently, work. But strung together as a narrative and it lumbers along aimlessly to its conclusion.
This was originally published as part of the London Film Festival coverage for Culturefly, in October 2018