It’s not often that a film leaves you desperately wanting more. Most modern movies outstay their welcome by at least half an hour, but it’s one of the many achievements of Simon Amstell’s debut feature film that when the end comes it feels surprisingly early.
Writer/director Amstell’s film is a very funny and beautifully romantic story of creative people attempting to navigate the twin mazes of forging a career and finding love. It’s brilliantly performed, elegantly shot, and fits snuggly into the British romcom tradition while simultaneously standing out as a genuine original.
Who knows from whence curly-haired insecure teetotal writer/director/performer Amstell conjured the curly-haired insecure teetotal writer/director/performer protagonist Benjamin? One can only speculate, but Colin Morgan makes the part his own in a performance that perfectly balances desire, ambition and awkward honesty.
Benjamin is a previously-acclaimed filmmaker struggling with his difficult second feature, suffering pangs of anxiety over whether there are enough – or too many – inserts of Tibetan monk wisdom in his semi-autobiographical movie about love and commitment.
When Benjamin and his best friend, stand-up comedian Stephen (Joel Fry) are dragged to an arty party, Benjamin is instantly smitten with soulful French singer Noah (Phénix Brossard) and pretty soon the pair are on the bumpy road to romance. Along the way Benjamin’s film receives its premiere, and he begins a reluctant collaboration with pretentious rising star Harry, played by a gorgeously obnoxious Jack Rowan.
Each character is truthfully and sympathetically drawn, with the common link of coping with the uncertainty of establishing a career in the arts. When Stephen has a disastrous stand-up gig, his confidence is shattered, leading Benjamin to worry that his depressed friend may have reached the end of his tether. Here, Fry is superb at showing the raw horror of despair, and Morgan wonderfully and sensitively captures the helpless fear that comes with caring for someone with depression. But such moments of intense drama are never allowed to unbalance the tone of the film – a gag is never far away to break the tension.
While Amstell treats the main characters’ creative endeavours with respect but not indulgence, he has a lot of fun at the expense of the more out-there artists. There’s a hilarious scene with a straight-faced performance artist, and Harry’s starting point for his project with Benjamin (he eschews ideas such as story and character) is an instinctive feeling that he should be asleep in a burgundy coat, dreaming of swans. It’s a delightfully cheeky mockery that Amstell and his cast judge just right, pulling no punches but stopping short of being cruel.
And then, as you’re settled in and enjoying the ride, the film ends and you’re left with a feeling that its climaxed too soon, so to speak. I want to know where Benjamin and Noah’s on/off relationship goes next? Will Stephen be okay? Will Harry get over himself? What does Benjamin’s cat think of it all? So many questions. I demand a sequel.
© Nick Myles 2019
Benjamin is in cinemas from Friday 15th March. More info.