Review: Brian and Charles — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Brian and Charles calls itself a comedy, but no label can telegraph how laugh-out-loud funny, painfully poignant, and heart-meltingly melancholy this film manages to be.

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Brian and Charles

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG

Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Stars: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, Jamie Michie

Writers: David Earl, Chris Hayward

Director: Jim Archer

 

Infrequently, a film comes along that truly embodies the word “film” — delicate, dreamlike, fragile to the point of ephemera.

Brian and Charles, the story of a painfully lonely man who builds a robot for companionship, calls itself a comedy, but only because marketing norms require that a movie define itself as something. No label, however, can telegraph how laugh-out-loud funny; how painfully poignant; how heart-meltingly melancholy Brian and Charles manages to be.

Co-writers David Earl and Chris Hayward play the title roles, two characters so distinctive they could clearly not have been entrusted to anyone else. Earl is Brian, a plumber/handyman and part-time inventor who lives in a remote hillside cottage somewhere in the Welsh countryside. We meet him in mockumentary fashion (a now-overused conceit that is the film’s one weakness), demonstrating his numerous harebrained creations, including a belt with leather egg holders and a flying grandfather clock.

His masterpiece, if you can call it that, is Charles — a boxy, towering humanoid with the body of a washing machine and a head fashioned from a mannequin noggin. The inner workings of Charles are of no concern to the writers, nor should they be to us. Suffice to say Brian slaps Charles together from odds and ends in his shop, flicks a switch in his neck, and one lightning storm later finds himself in the company of an enormous, gentle giant (Brian dubs his new friend “Charles,” while Charles, seemingly out of nowhere, conjures up the last name “Petrescu”).

As Charles, co-writer Hayward remains physically hidden under the robot’s bulk. His movements are radically limited — aside from the moments when Charles, inspired by music or simple happiness, breaks into awkward dance. His voice is a computer-enhanced monotone, a device that at first reminds us of an early Commodore 64 computer — but eventually evokes the simple rhythms of a young child, endlessly repeating questions, always seeking reassurances of love and attention.

It’s that child-like dependence that Brian finds irresistible — at first, anyway. Like any new parent, he is soon overwhelmed by his new arrival’s neediness. But that’s nothing compared to when Charles, his knowledge of the world accelerated by voracious reading, begins to assert his independence.

And here’s where Brian and Charles really transcends its simple setting and cut-rate sci-fi premise — exploring, with disarming subtlety, the classic struggle of a creator faced with a creation that has a mind of its own. Of course, the conflicts of Brian and Charles never rise to mythological magnitude — mostly they have to do with Charles stealing cabbages and insisting he be taken to Hawaii — but for these two characters, isolated on a Welsh mountainside, the stakes could not be higher.

Brian and Charles takes some detours as the relationship grows — there’s a lovely budding romance between Brian and a similarly shy village woman played by Louise Brealey (TV’s Sherlock) and a disturbing conflict with the local bully (Jamie Michie) who, driven by jealousy and just plain meanness, kidnaps Charles.

But neither love nor menace can break the bond between man and robot. British director Jim Archer has the good sense to let the camera roll for long interludes of warm, funny interaction between his stars, who have been honing these two characters ever since introducing them in an award-winning 2017 short film of the same name.

From Stan and Ollie to Buzz and Woody, films about the sweet satisfactions of friendship have had a way of exploring the human condition in ways white-hot dramas never could. To that list of big screen buddies you can add Brian and Charles, misfits who found themselves when they found one another.

Featured image: Brian and Charles (Focus Features)

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