Those who remember Simon Amstell terrorising pop stars on Pop World (“Lemar From Afar!”) and Never Mind The Buzzcocks might he surprised by Benjamin, his debut feature film. Honed on the likes of TV’s Grandma’s House and shorts like Carnage, Amstell’s voice is sharp and satirical but also retains a sweetness and affection for his diffident characters. Benjamin has the cut of a US indie — personal, intimate, a bit shambolic — but remains decidedly British in its world view, and bodes well for the filmmaker’s future.
After a well-received first feature, we first meet film director Benjamin (Morgan, best known as the star of Merlin) wrestling with his sophomore effort, pretentious love story ‘No Self’. Amstell finds fun in the minutiae of low-budget filmmaking, from debating with his producer (Anna Chancellor) about the merits of the “monk scene” to his torturous pre-movie introduction at the London Film Festival to, best of all, a fantastic takedown by Mark Kermode, who proves remarkably adept at playing a harsher version of himself. When it seems Benjamin can’t sink any lower, he visits a producer on set of a new Keira Knightley film (‘Sibling’) touting for work, and the director mistakes him for a competition winner.
Amstell creates a London that Londoners will recognise
While Benjamin’s art is suffering, his heart is lifted by meeting French musician Noah, whose band is offering the entertainment at a launch for a new chair. Played with quiet likability by Phénix Broussard, Noah steadies Benjamin’s ship in ways that catch the heart. Amstell gently makes the point that what Benjamin wants — the adulation of the Curzon Soho crowd — is not what he needs — to share his life with Noah — and the journey to this realisation is charming and keenly felt. He is helped here by the likable Morgan who stays on the right side of the fine line between angst-y/awkward and downright annoying.
Some of it doesn’t come off (a cat/drug trip riff) and a sub-plot involving Benjamin’s pal Steve (Joel Fry) includes a fantastically excruciating stand-up comedy routine but feels an addendum to the main story. But Amstell has a great ear for dialogue (“I love the way you don’t chase success,” Benjamin is told), original comedy instincts (there is a genius use of the piano opening of Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’) and creates that rarity on film: a London that Londoners might actually recognise, be it curry houses or wanky creative hubs. He also has the filmmaking chops to play the archness of the film within a film against his own rough-hewn, relaxed directorial style. There are slicker debuts, with big-name cameos and drone shots, but Amstell has a feel for people and a point of view that will serve him when the budgets get bigger.