Wednesday 20 March 2019

The many selves of Simon: "Benjamin"

In Help, the memoir/stand-up anthology he published last year, Simon Amstell wrote with candour and familiar self-deprecation about his attempts to get past using humour as a defence mechanism and thereby arrive at a higher, more truthful state: a tricky task for most young men, doubly so for one whose existence depends on making jokes for a living. Amstell's directorial debut Benjamin more than likely came out of this haphazard process of growing up: it's a droll, unusually mature and sophisticated romantic comedy centred on the agonies that ensue when the eponymous Benjamin, a tousle-haired, yammering filmmaker played by Colin Morgan as as much an analogue for Amstell himself as the stammering Kenneth Branagh was for Woody Allen in 1998's Celebrity, locks lips and limbs with Noah (Phénix Brossard), a breezy French musician who apparently suffers no neuroses whatsoever. We are left to wonder whether these polar opposites can possibly attract, and how feasible it is to go looking for one's true self when one's very understanding of that self is so fragile, so dependent upon the affirmation of others. You can hear Amstell the first-time screenwriter striving to reassure himself when our Ben's producer Tessa (Anna Chancellor) attempts to head off her angsty charge's jitters by insisting, of his latest, at least semi-autobiographical project, "Some people will like it, and others won't be that into it"; even more typically reflexive is the gesture of Ben's pal Stephen (Joel Fry) who, upon being introduced socially as a comedian, immediately insists "I'm not funny."

The courtship that follows is very much rooted in London, and its artsier Northern enclaves in particular, lent an attractive after-hours sheen by cinematographer David Pimm. Benjamin and Noah meet at a "chair party" ("a party to launch a chair"); they have a brief stopover in the Curzon Soho toilets, where the posters of golden-age arthouse smashes effectively place Benjamin in the tradition of the personal filmmaking of yore. With that, there follows an element of self-regard: when our unlikely lovers first make out, they do so only after Benjamin has screened that quasi-autobiographical film (in which Benjamin himself appears) to his beau. Yet the fact that film has been titled "No Self" suggests Amstell is very much aware of it, and he keeps finding ways of ushering us around and past it, so that we emerge charmed rather than screaming. Would it have been altogether too much - too postmodern, too cloying - if Amstell, already proven as a fun (if slightly abrasive) screen presence by 2011's Black Pond and TV's late, lamented Grandma's House, had cast himself as Benjamin? Possibly. As it is, Morgan projects an appealing boyishness all his own while doing an excellent job of capturing the push-pull rhythms that make Amstell such a distinctive writer-performer ("We will get water. How will we do this?").

Equal attention has been paid to the supporting cast. There are useful showcases for Jessica Raine as an endlessly distractible PR; Jack Rowan as an emergent actor who matches Benjamin for vanity but has none of his self-awareness (you wonder who inspired the character, as the candidates would appear infinite); the woolly-haired Fry, who converts Stephen's self-annihilating stage act into a nicely bathetic setpiece; and for Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Benjamin's understandably aggrieved ex. (Recruiting Messrs. Kermode and Mayo to replay their webcast double-act for the big screen - offering "No Self" a mixed review - is one of many medialand details the film troubles to get right, and a useful dramatic counterpoint: briefly, we find ourselves in the company of grown men who've become successful and popular by being themselves, displaying none of the hang-ups, pretensions or doubt displayed by Benjamin and his ilk.) However much Benjamin ties himself in knots, Amstell's own direction remains admirably relaxed and assured: it finds a tone early on, establishes performance (on stage, as in love) as a key theme and recurring motif, then has the confidence to watch these characters hang out - allowing them to reveal themselves, whether happy, lost or simply confused, in their own time. The Amstell who skewered countless creative egos as the teenage co-host of T4's Popworld is present in a thoroughly unexpected revival of Hanson's 1998 hit "Weird", but Benjamin's honest study of the vicissitudes of being twentysomething could only have been made by a filmmaker who's reached the safe haven of his thirties. Believe it or not, kids, it does get better.

Benjamin is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.

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