The surprising thing about 'Benjamin' therefore is it’s the first of his career moves that feels wholly unsurprising, playing as it does like a Greatest Hits album. The acerbic, machine gun patter of his presenting days combined with the aching tenderness of his live shows, finished off with the gleeful blurring of fiction and reality that made 'Carnage' such a mischievous joy.
A familiar figure to long-time fans, the titular Benjamin Oliver is a pallid, mop-haired (vegan) creative with a penchant for thin, ill-looking boys, and star Colin Morgan deftly replicates many of Amstell’s own tics and mannerisms in his brazen yet masterfully restrained central performance. It’s hard to say how much of this was at Amstell’s behest and how much was down to the actor eyeballing his director between takes, à la Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s similarly melancholic 'Lolita'. It’s undoubtedly true the script makes no effort to distance Amstell and his besweatered creation. Some lines are lifted almost verbatim from his stand-up shows, and indeed one scene features a goofy yet fragile Joel Fry as a flailing pub comic, performing a bit that could easily be read as all of Amstell’s insecurities about his work in the form translated into the verbal equivalent of blunt force trauma.
Off the stage Fry continues to impress, brilliantly capturing the pain of an artist adrift in a sea of more successful peers. Enthralled and ensnared by the beguiling Billie (a deliciously reckless Jessica Raine), his is the story that lands the film’s only real emotional gut-punches. Though a beautifully understated cameo from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett rivals it by eloquently cutting to the heart of Morgan’s wounded auteur in the course of a single brief exchange.
In many ways 'Benjamin' is an examination of how we deal with success, and the stresses of trying to maintain it. Both the film and its subject exist in a perpetual state of rictus. We are never allowed to relax. Every decision Benjamin faces is paralysing and every utterance the least-suited for the situation at hand. “Maybe we should just have fun” he observes wistfully at one point. An innocuous enough phrase in the context of a conversation with a prospective boyfriend, but one which masks a rich seam of existential desperation. A terror that the niche he has spent years carving out for himself is neither desirable nor sustainable, and whatever form of fun he currently has is resoundingly not the kind he needs.
If the film has a flaw it’s that it lacks the naked ambition and originality of 'Carnage', Amstell’s directorial debut, and while Morgan’s performance is endlessly relatable, the script doesn’t allow him to plumb the depths of his character as much as one feels he could, so it falls short of being genuinely affecting.
Ultimately 'Benjamin' feels like the natural culmination of numerous threads which have wended their way through Amstell’s career to date. And as such one finds it hard to predict where he might go next. It’s fair to say that whatever he chooses to do now, short of Benjamin II, it cannot but be surprising.