While the days of Simon Amstell mercilessly teasing B-list celebrities on Never Mind the Buzzcocks may be long gone (Preston from the Ordinary Boys, anybody?), Amstell’s familiar satirical bite and glee in mockery are still very much present in Benjamin. However, in this debut feature film, they are deployed alongside an affection and tenderness that give the film a touching depth.
Seven years after his critically successful first feature film, Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is struggling with his second, No Self. Doubts plague every element of the film, from the colour palette (“Would it be the same if we made it black and white?”), to the content (when Benjamin asks his producer if the film is “Not too funny,” she flatly replies “I don’t think so”). After a painful London Film Festival screening and savaging from Mark Kermode, in a hilarious cameo, Benjamin is left feeling despondent and lost.
Meanwhile, at bougie London party celebrating the launch of a chair, Benjamin is introduced to musician Noah (Phénix Brossard). Despite some initial awkwardness, with Benjamin declaring “I’m a big fan of Les Mis” upon learning that Noah is French, the two begin a relationship. When asked by Noah what his film is about, Benjamin answers, “My inability to love. But I’m fine now.” Benjamin’s clear fear of intimacy challenges his ability to build meaningful relationships, something Noah quietly and persistently erodes. Early on in the film, Noah convinces uptight Benjamin to take magic mushrooms. Not only are the following scenes hilarious, but also symbolise the freedom and vulnerability that Noah enables Benjamin to feel. There is quiet and determined truthfulness to the couple’s interactions, helped by wonderful performances from both Morgan and Brossard.
What it means to be an artist and create “art” is a theme the film repeatedly comes back to, somewhat unsurprisingly given the metafictional nature of the film. Benjamin’s own relationship with his status as an artist is uncomfortable. When asked in an interview about the reason for the seven-year gap between his two films, he replies “when people say they like what you’ve done it’s probably best to stop doing it before they start hating you.” The film’s other creative types, particularly Ellie Kendrick, in her role as an interpretive dancer in a piece simply titled ‘Womb’, and Benjamin’s co-star of No Self, Harry (Jack Rowan) are presented as vacuous and pretentious.
Standing in stark contrast to their fakery is Noah, whose genuine talent as a musician is the real deal. Not bothered by pretensions, Noah is as happy to play classical piano as he is to belt out the opening lines of Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles.’ Benjamin is smart enough to see through the emptiness of much of the creative world, but cannot help but desire their adoration. As this desire for creative acceptance begins to affect his ability to gain romantic acceptance, Benjamin realises that he has to change. This central tension creates an endearing and realistic journey.
The film fumbles in the last third, particularly when delving into a sub-plot concerning Benjamin’s comedian friend Stephen (Joel Fry). Fry brings a gentle fragility to the part, particularly in an agonising scene of stand-up gone horribly wrong. As Stephen’s life spirals out of control, Benjamin intervenes in a clumsy effort to care for him; a process that slowly reminds Benjamin that he does have the capacity for love. Yet, without deeper exploitation of their relationship, this creates the unfortunate feeling that Stephen is more of a plot device in Benjamin’s development than a genuine character in his own right.
Image: Paul_PH via Wikimedia Commons