Comedian Simon Amstell’s second film in the director’s chair follows a socially awkward filmmaker suffering from crippling anxiety due to the imminent world premiere of his second film. And if this didn’t already feel dangerously close to autobiography, Amstell’s second directorial outing has just had its world premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, just like the embarrassingly personal film directed by the title character of his latest effort, Benjamin.
The comedian’s underrated BBC sitcom Grandma’s House proved that Amstell has a clear talent for mining laughs from his own inabilities to cope with everyday social situations. After an unexpected diversion into surrealistic sci-fi territory with his 2017 BBC film Carnage, a mockumentary taking place in a future where humanity has turned vegan, he’s firmly back in his comfort zone with Benjamin – although discomfort zone might be a more appropriate way of putting it. There are as many cringe inducing moments as there are funny ones here, with the low narrative concept of chronicling the titular character’s romantic and professional struggles helping to keep the laughs painfully real throughout.
Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is in the final stages of editing his second film, a delayed follow up to a BAFTA winning success story several years before. Naturally, he’s suffering from crippling anxiety and a lack of self-assurance when it comes to his own film – at one point, he has to be consoled by his producer, who tells him that audience reactions aren’t important, as everybody who sees his film is going to die at some point anyway. His personal life isn’t faring much better either. After meeting young French musician Noah (Phénix Brossard) he becomes smitten quickly. The only issue is that they meet just as he’s in the final stages of making an autobiographical film about his own inability to love.
Although Colin Morgan maintains his Irish accent throughout, there should be little doubt in anybody’s mind that Benjamin is at least partly based on the trials and tribulations of the director’s own life. From passing references to his veganism, to repeatedly watching videos on meditation (which has informed memorable sequences from Amstell’s stand up in the past), the character of Benjamin is a thinly veiled cipher for Amstell. But although he isn’t one to shy away from self reflection in his work, creating a thinly disguised character does allow him to be even more critical than usual. It’s reminiscent of the work of Woody Allen, where every leading male role in his later films was in some manner designed as a vessel to channel his own neuroses, while putting their own spin on his distinctive comedic personality.
Although there isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, this really is a showcase for Colin Morgan. Best known for his leading role in BBC’s Merlin, and his vital supporting role in Channel 4’s Humans, the actor’s body of work to date doesn’t prepare you for just how well he takes to this dryly comic role, mining laughs from the misreading of every social cue you could possibly imagine. He does such a good job making Benjamin’s behaviour believable, even his most foolish actions have a crime inducing tangibility. A moment where he notices his ex while meeting his boyfriend’s parents for the first time, inviting him over to the table out of politeness, proved to be particularly hilarious, and incredibly difficult to watch.
Benjamin is a low key delight; a return to the comic territory we expect from Simon Amstell, with no sign of his familiar approach to hilariously dissecting his own anxieties growing stale any time soon.