London Film Festival: Benjamin

Writer and Director:  Simon Amstell

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The film industry loves nothing better than to look at itself, but there are significant differences in the UK and US approach. The Americans tend to focus on the extremes, either celebrating the joyous magic of Hollywood in movies such as Singing in the Rain and La La Land, or warning of its ruthless abandonment of former stars in Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. The Brits, however, portray the film world as a comic nonsense full of ludicrous luvvies and pretentious self-importance.

Writer/director Simon Amstell’s second film Benjamin is about a writer/director making his second film, but while the emotions are grounded in real experiences, Amstell insisted in a slightly bonkers Q&A session, that the scenarios are not autobiographical. Modestly, Amstell’s sweetly funny film is about relatively unsuccessful artists, people on the fringes who arguably lack just enough talent to make it really big.

The concentration on ridiculous personalities who take their “craft” a bit too seriously feels all too true in a story that lovingly mocks the industry while its central character elicits a surprising pathos. Benjamin is working on his follow-up film after a promising debut, but he is having trouble deciphering whether he is capable of love. A writer friend introduces him to “Noah as in Noah” and they begin a devoted affair, but as Benjamin prepares to launch his film in a meta-London Film Festival, self-doubt plagues him and, refusing to believe he is worth loving, hits the self-destruct button on the burgeoning relationship.

Set against a richly comic backdrop of arty London experiences including design launches, portrait sessions and contemporary dance showcases, Amstell’s film is remarkably human and incredibly endearing. While he mocks the people Benjamin encounters, Amstell creates a believable and very ordinary story of two slightly geeky boys falling in love in the London most of us will recognise – suburban streets, curry houses and parks. Amstell makes Benjamin a part of the arty scene but it is an uncomfortable fit, he is more at home with Noah.

Colin Morgan’s Benjamin is hugely likeable, incredibly awkward and lacking in confidence but his struggles to make a film that lives up to an impossible expectation draws the audience to his side, while his relationship with Noah is beautifully developed. Morgan also reveals his comic chops and delivers many of the film’s best moments including a hilarious cat-fearing trip while high. But it is the emotional depth that is so affecting, and Morgan makes you really feel for his character despite his ineptitude.

No one else has quite as much to do and it might be slightly credulous that someone as clumsy as Benjamin could be so attractive to multiple partners, but the surrounding characters provide good texture. These include Phénix Brossard’s kind singer who forces Benjamin to open himself to greater intimacy, Jessica Raine as a self-involved writer who flits between endless trendy events, and Joel Fry as an equally deficient stand-up comedian friend. Even Anna Chancellor adds nicely to the mix as a producer with limited indulgence.

Simon Amstell clearly does not suffer from the same anxieties as his characters, delivering a charming, occasionally random and often very funny second movie. It may follow many of the rom-com conventions – a meet-cute, obstacles and a chase across town – but it does it with real heart to create a little bit of happiness.

Release Date: 19 October 2018 

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Sweetly funny

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