Simon Amstell’s bittersweet romance has less to say about relationships and more about the vapidness of fame.
Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is a gangly, nervous filmmaker with one hit under his belt. He is making his second film, terrified it’s not going to live up to the hype. It’s not too much of a reach to see that Morgan is a stand-in for Amstell, who both directs and write the film, the same floppy hair and anxious energy but with a different face and an Irish accent.
Benjamin’s mind is taken off his work stresses when he falls for French singer, Noah (Phénix Brossard) and decides to hyper-fixate on him instead. Benjamin surrounds himself with East London arty types including his heavy partying publicist Billie (Jessica Raine) and the desperately sad stand-up comedian Stephen (Joel Fry). Neither bring much to the narrative but both add a lightness to a sometimes cold script. Billie is a one-dimensional cliché but played with enough fire that she feels real. Fry steals all the scenes he is in (much like his recent performance in Yesterday), his uncomfortable and easy to misconstrue sense of humour clearly inspired by Amstell’s own. Neither of these players gets the satisfying ending they deserve, especially Joel Fry’s Stephen, whose subplot brings emotional maturity the film.
This film works best when it’s focused on the romance between the filmmaker and the musician. It’s love at first sight, a feat not easy when both artists hide their emotions behind the protective wall of their craft. The film would have worked better if it spent more time exploring the relationship between the two introverted subjects and less time concerned with the emptiness of those around the lead. Very few characters are likeable here, even our lead, Joel Fry as a stand up whose mental breakdown seeps into his routines is the closest this film has to charming. Benjamin offers a roster of borderline satirical characters that we never really get to meet, they pop in and out of scenes speaking in Tumblr quotes but we never get to scratch beneath the service of what makes these artists, actors and marketing personnel tick.
Benjamin is not a comfortable watch. At the start, Benjamin’s terrible attempts at small talk, awkward wooing and inability to act naturally around others is charming and easy to relate to but it soon becomes a little weary. It’s not difficult to compare the energy of this debut to Woody Allen, audiences have to buy into the nervous energy and unnatural character dialogue in the same way they do whilst watching Annie Hall.
At times it feels too intimate, like you’re peering in on the lives of people who don’t want to be watched. Not just emotionally intimate, but also in terms of locations. Despite being a film about showbiz types many of the scenes takes place in small bleak flats, monochrome bars and the unglamorous backstage of London film festival. The camera lingers closely on the characters faces for an uncomfortable amount of time but the audience never really gets to journey further than face value.
There is more to this film than a portrait of a navel-gazing, painfully awkward and tortured artist but sadly not quite enough. There is a skill to the details within this film, details that make this world feel tangible. The quirky, yet appropriately small apartments, the time spent daydreaming on London buses, the beautifully scathing film review from Mark Kermode (who is rather skilled at playing a harsher version of himself).
The depictions of the shallow, artsy world Benjamin lives in are bemusing, but too detached in perspective to be funny. Unless you know these people and have been to these parties (in an early scene Benjamin finds himself at the launch of a chair), the film won’t immerse you in this world. Amstell’s script for Benjamin demands viewers fill in many of the details about the lead, his friends and this world.
For many, this film will be hard to swallow. It’s a film about dislikeable people doing nothing significant with their lives. The ending feels especially unsatisfying, like cut was said ten minutes too early. Ironically, for a film where the lead character worries his film is too pretentious, the film feels self-indulgent and, dare I say it, pretentious.
Benjamin and Noah are men of few words but where voices don’t fill the air, music completes the silence. Klaxons frontman James Righton crafts a beautiful score that perfectly describes the nervousness and nostalgia of falling in love. Righton, who is also credited as a musical director, has produced one of the most interesting cinema scores of the year.
There are few laugh out loud moments, no edge and an awkward middle-classness to it. Although written with a strong, distinctive voice, a lot of these topics have been explored before, not just by Allen but by Richard Curtis, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Jonze. The innocence and self-indulgence to the film is part of its charm, even if Benjamin has a little too much conviction. It’s a strong feature film debut from Amstell although far from perfect, and will satisfy those who enjoy his mockumentary Carnage and his short films.