By Dylan B Jones
Simon Amstell’s Benjamin is a film about skinny white boys kissing. It’s also a film about audiences, and the pain or pleasure of being judged by them. It cleverly makes viewers feel – much like the film’s eponymous main character – constantly awkward and guilty.
Benjamin is a filmmaker who lives in East London. He’s got a propensity for self-pity and pretty, artistic men. Following a disastrous Q&A screening of his latest film at Curzon (we’ve all been there babe), he falls into a spiral of self-doubt and romantic complications. Amstell undoubtedly draws on his own experiences in life and love; the film certainly feels at least semi-autobiographical. Morgan is very reminiscent of Amstell – all floppy hair, charming weirdness and shuffling feet.
This is, refreshingly and in a very 2019 way, certainly NOT a gay movie. It’s a gay movie in that its main characters are interested mostly in the same sex, but it’s not a gay movie in that it has nothing to do with gay “issues”. It’s just characters who happen to be gay – Call Me By Your Name took a similar approach in some ways, and it’s great to see.
As well as main love interest, the predictably beguiling and predictably French Noah (Phénix Brossard), Amstell surrounds Benjamin with a brilliant and raucous cast of supporting characters. Joel Fry is totally charming as his long-suffering, depressive comedian friend Stephen; Ellie Kendrick makes a brief and genuinely funny appearance as conceptual dancer Anna; Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is hilarious as a jilted ex (“I heard you made a movie about us and cast me as a white guy?”)
Perhaps most memorable though is Jessica Raine as his actually quite horrid but weirdly likeable manager Billie; she storms around in heels and fringed jackets, dispensing cigarettes and insults with a mix of privileged arrogance and unstable vulnerability. Always either on her phone or giving insincere praise, her character is a razor sharp and brilliantly accurate portrayal of those sort of people.
This bolschy character aside, it’s a very safe film. There’s not much to challenge viewers. The most we see on the sexual side of things is kissing. There’s a bit of drug use, but it’s sunny, romantic and rain-soaked. And as for the main character Simon – sorry, Benjamin – it’s difficult to know where his anguish stems from.
He’s got a creatively fulfilling job, a lovely flat, and several attractive boys interested in him, but is constantly, and infuriatingly in a state of unaccountable ennui. The film also falls into that Hollywood-esque trap of having even the “nerdy loser” characters played by stunningly beautiful actors, which makes it all a bit unconvincing. Colin Morgan looks like a cross between Cillian Murphy and a Brazilian underwear model.
Benjamin is a perfectly fine film – well written, well acted and at times very funny. It’ll make great viewing for teens in the midst of angst – after all, that’s the audience Amstell excels in pleasing (just look at the brilliant, genre-defining Skins). But discerning adult cinemagoers might need a little more.
Benjamin is out on March 15th.