Benjamin | Movie review by Steve Bennett
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Note: This review is from 2019

Movie review by Steve Bennett

Simon Amstell is a film-maker who’s made a film about a film maker making a film about his inability to love, a topic that long informed his stand-up.

The lines between title character Benjamin and his creator are definitely blurred. No Self, the film-within-a-film is a pretentious bit of navel-gazing from a lauded director who isn’t as deep as he’d like to be, which seems to reflect Amstell’s self-doubt. 

And the setting would be familiar to the writer-director: the slightly ridiculous media world of Hoxton-style ‘creatives’ that’s a social whirl that spins from a launch party for a new chair to pretentious performance art showcases. Everyone involves believes this stuff is important, because if it’s not, what else have they got?

Benjamin fits into this place a little closer than he would like. He clearly has an aching soul, but seems to confuse social awkwardness for being a tortured genius. Amstell’s script is just about knowing enough to work on two levels:  whether you buy into Benjamin’s self-image or think he should probably just get over himself. 

For he is not, essentially, a very likeable character. His selfishness and angst do not make him prime boyfriend material (in this he’s like every Woody Allen character ever), yet we must want him to find love if we’re to invest in the film. That immature Benjamin conflates love and infatuation doesn’t help much – but the casting of Colin Morgan in the title role overcomes much of this, as he brings sensitivity and a much-needed fragile likability to the character. Plus of course Amstell’s script is frequently witty, with more than its share of pithy aphorisms.

The object of Benjamin’s affection is Noah (Phénix Brossard), whom he spots on stage, singing with his band. ‘You like people who are well-lit and weak,’ Benjamin is told in one of the many sardonic lines you can’t help but hear in Amstell’s voice. That first encounter between the potential loves is as cringe-inducing expected.

We don’t get to know much about the thinly-drawn – and actually thin – Noah, other than he’s young, attractive and looks emotionally vulnerable. But that’s the point: he’s Benjamin ideal of what a love interest should be for an aching soul like him.

In contrast to the lead’s solipsism, Benjamin’s publicist Billie (Jessica Raine, constantly stealing scenes despite some strong competition) hides her insecurities through manic  activity,  frantically throwing herself into her projects to avoid addressing anything real.

Meanwhile, erstwhile Plebs star Joel Fry plays Benjamin’s friend Marc – a stand-up still struggling after eight years on the circuit and fighting depression, usually with alcohol.  But we never really get to know him, and his presence adds an extra tension to a movie that’s not short of that emotion. 

Benjamin will most likely resonate strongest with  young adult audiences who find themselves in a similar emotional place: wanting to be seen as creative, sensitive and artistic, but struggling with social awkwardness, heightened by a nervous tendency to blurt out the wrong thing. 

There’s a lot of charm in Amstell’s s gentle satire on the self-centred – and by extension his own work – but after 90 minutes in which almost everyone’s having an existential crisis, you yearn for a little less inward-looking moodiness. 

It’s telling that one of the best scenes is when the realities of the ‘normal’ world creep in, with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo eviscerating No Self as pretentious twaddle. Benjamin, the movie, is far too self-aware for that, as the inclusion of this scene underlines, but neither is it quite biting enough about the world and characters it portrays.

• Benjamin is out today.

Review date: 15 Mar 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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