A film as personal and autobiographical as Simon Amstell’s Benjamin risks alienating its audience. There’s a danger of diving so deep into one’s own personal and emotional history that the story you’re telling becomes too singular and perhaps not all that accessible. In his feature length directorial debut – he previously directed an hour-long, straight to TV special for the BBC – Amstell places himself on screen as Benjamin through Colin Morgan, getting as specific as having Morgan’s character anxiously preparing for the release of his own second feature. The film’s opening scene of Benjamin in the cutting room for his film worrying over what scenes should and shouldn’t make the final cut lands like a beat-for-beat recreation of a moment Amstell probably went through before he finalised Benjamin.
It’s testament mostly to Amstell’s script that his film – as pin-point specific as it is – still succeeds in feeling universal in what it’s tackling. While the actual narrative of a socially awkward and anxiety-stricken gay man preparing for the release of his second film may sound almost dangerously autobiographical, Benjamin makes waves as a film dealing with emotional vulnerability and both perception and acceptance of the self. Amstell’s dialogue ranges from laugh out loud hilarity to cringe inducing awkwardness, occasionally within the same sequence: a moment in a restaurant late in the film makes you want to curl up into a ball from sheer discomfort but then closes with a three word line that allows you to laugh the whole thing away. Amstell’s balance between the dramatic and the comedic parts of his film is impeccable.
Benjamin doesn’t necessarily take on a lot, but it covers plenty of ground across its lean 90 minutes. As well as following Benjamin preparing for the film festival premiere of his second work it also tracks him as he falls for a singer he stumbles across at a social event, whom he refers to as “a thin boy on a stage” before his friend aptly translates that as Benjamin being attracted to men who are “well-lit and weak”. Their romance is handled affectionately, the simple awkwardness of sitting at opposite ends of a crowded table and how to invite someone back to your place eventually grow into the more challenging ordeals of meeting parents and dealing with insecurities. Amstell paces it seamlessly, flowing from this subplot to his others with ease, allowing each one to ripple into those around it. Benjamin’s life during the time we spend with him feels staggeringly authentic.
At the front of it all is Colin Morgan, in a beautifully naturalistic but still very much layered performance. Having Benjamin star in his own film within the film is a smart move, allowing us to see him through a different lens, even though the outcome is strikingly similar to how he appears off camera too. Morgan succeeds in keeping Benjamin a nuanced character whose emotions seem to paradoxically be more on show than others’ but also harder to crack, and he similarly manages to sell the inadvertent awkwardness to his character too. A short sequence following a bizarre live art show demonstrates this perfectly, as Benjamin at first mishandles the post-show conversation and then misinterprets someone else’s response and draws attention to that too. If it makes you want to sink into the floor it’s good awkward acting.
While Amstell as a writer is fully formed, Amstell as a director still feels lacking in confidence. Benjamin finds itself lost between a loose kind of verité-esque handheld style and something slightly more rigid and static, the film shifting between the two shooting styles unevenly. It feels unable to choose a style, while Benjamin is clearly striving for naturalism – something best shown through a freer handheld lens – there are moments that seem to contradict this goal. Awkward cuts between scenes, strange framing and editing decisions seem to sprout up here and there. I suppose you could make a case for the awkward technical and cinematic nature of the final product being in keeping with the film’s own protagonist, but it never quite does land that way.
But this is easily forgiven when Amstell demonstrates such charisma and quiet force within his script. The film has a genuinely lived-in feel to it, a brilliant and effortless normalcy to its characters and the way their stories unfold. One of Benjamin’s closest friends, played deftly by Joel Fry, delivers a devastatingly poor stand up comedy show in the middle of the film, so clearly bad you begin to wonder how he would have reached that stage in his life in the first place. It’s only when you rethink his material and couple it with later scenes he shares with Benjamin that you start to piece most of his journey together. It feels heartbreakingly real, the kind of soft punch to the gut you don’t truly feel until long after it’s happened.
In fact, all of Benjamin lands with this potency. There are many scenes here that feel more akin to memory than fiction, and it’s to the credit of both Amstell’s script and the performances of his actors that we feel the impact of them despite not being privy to the very much real moment they were based on. Despite the film festival and art show and stand-up comedy subplots – the film is rooted in the arts, strengthening its thematic ties to the idea of perception – Benjamin never really stops being a love story between Noah and its titular character. It builds to a sweet, moving conclusion, one that promises change and progress but cuts to black before it can deliver that to us. It leaves us to decide whether or not we believe the future it teases, and the simple beauty of Benjamin himself makes you hope the change comes after all.
Verve Pictures will release Benjamin on DVD 12th August and you could win a copy over on our Twitter!
Simon Amstell’s #Benjamin feels 'heartbreakingly real' – @morris_movies' ★★★★ review: https://t.co/BqMPKMhcU6#Benjamin arrives on DVD 12th August and we have a copy for you to win! Simply FOLLOW US + RT this tweet to be in with a chance ? pic.twitter.com/fTMEKBcgzm
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