Brian And Charles

UK (2022) Dir. Jim Archer

The premise of John Hughes’s 80’s teen comedy Weird Science saw what some of us wish we could do – build our own girlfriend. As tawdry as that sounds today, I’m sure there are many other lonely people who still have that dream. And if not a girlfriend then just a friend or companion will do.

Brian Gittins (David Earl) is a lonely handyman/inventor in a small rural village in Wales, although his inventions are too eccentric to be successful. Rummaging through a rubbish dump, one day Brian finds a mannequin’s head which inspires him to build a robot. Using a washing machine for its torso and other sundry parts for the rest of its body, the robot is complete but true to form, fails to work.

Later that night, a thunderstorm hits and Brian is shocked to see the robot walking about in his workshop. Brian names his new friend Charles (Chris Hayward), and brings him into the home, where Charles reads the dictionary and starts to speak. But the more knowledge Charles gains make him curious about the world around him and wants to see what’s beyond the village, making Brian nervous about Charles being seen in public.

In this age of computerised technology and 3D printing, there is something anachronistic about building a robot from spare parts in a workshop but this is the inherent charm that makes Brian And Charles a quietly resonant work. It may not be as profound as one of its obvious influences, Frankenstein, with no overarching message of playing god in the name of science; instead, it subverts this idea to highlight the gap in the lives of the lonely.

Yet it soon falls into a comfortable groove of a rustic tale of bullying and the rise of the underdog, having bordered on exploring the danger of Artificial Intelligence becoming to intelligent and wanting autonomy. The idea a literal hunk of junk could develop a sense of worth, importance, and independence works as subtle parable in the wake of modern technology ruling out lives, but sadly, writers David Earl and Chris Hayward choose not to explore this in depth.  

For much of the first act, this plays out like another Office-style mockumentary, right down to the David Brent-isms in Brian’s reactions and lack of self-awareness in front of the camera. Thankfully, Brian isn’t as solipsistic or vainglorious as Brent is, displaying a quiet naturalism and humbleness to offset his quirky side, the pathos being he can’t see why his ill-conceived inventions fail. That said, his tenacity, as fruitless as it may seem to us, it part of his likeability.

Robot Charles is a strange construct – the washing machine torso is a throwback to the days of cheap 1950s sci-fi where robots were bulky tin machines; his mannequin head appended with a grey wig, a blue lamp in place of his right eye and glasses may recall Lord Charles (the puppet of ventriloquist Ray Alan) for older viewers. Then there is the fact Charles is around 7 ft tall with a speaking voice that is a monotone, plumby take on Stephen Hawking’s electro voice completes this bizarre aesthetic.

Not wishing to draw attention to Charles, Brian keeps him at home whilst he goes about his business in the village as a handyman. Hazel (Louise Brealey), the daughter of one of Brian’s clients fulfils the love interest role, a shy, mousey girl, it is not initially clear if her crush on Brian is reciprocated until later when she meets Charles after Brian is forced to take him out. This is the icebreaker they both needed to get close to one another.

So far, so sweet, but Charles is absorbing information at quite a rate which sparks an interest in travelling the world, and Brian is quick to recognise is not practical and forbids it. Charles then turns into a 7ft toddler, throwing strops and arguing with Brian over the slightest thing. Yet, this isn’t what disrupts their relationship – that would be the village bully Eddie (Jamie Michie), and you know ere the story is going to go from here the moment he appears on screen.

Had the script stuck to the relationship between Charles and Brian, there is little doubt a stronger film would have been the outcome – it is certainly funnier and warmer as they get to know each other, and navigate the human/robot obstacle. It is silly things like Charles developing a taste for cabbages, or learning to draw that give the film its heart, whilst Brain finds himself in the role of tutor, responsible adult, and friend for the first time (he isn’t unpopular in the village, just unsocial).

As for why the direction was to copy every American teen movie by having Brian stand up to Eddie, I can only speculate it was to make it more palatable for a wider audience given this is an extended version of a 2017 short film from Earl, Hayward, and director Jim Archer. Its absurdist foundation is enough to pique interest for discerning film fans or those into surreal comedy like The Mighty Boosh, something the wider masses tend to steer clear of.

Contrasting the cheapness of Charles’s appearance, the pristine cinematography makes this look more of high budget production, adding plenty of sheen to the proceedings. It doesn’t quite dull the organic growth and heart of the central coupling, but one wonders what would happen if the glossy presentation were pared back a bit. Fortunately, Earl and Hayward demonstrate great chemistry together, both fluent in the nuance of their roles, with credit to Hayward for working in that costume.

Unquestionably a British film in attitude and approach, Brian And Charles has its heart in the right place, relishing in its domesticity in sharing this well-worn tale of an improbable friendship over stylish sentiment. A last act stumble into conventional trappings is the only thing preventing this nice film being a truly special one.  


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