Brian and Charles, 2022.
Directed by Jim Archer.
Starring David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, Jamie Michie, Lowri Izzard, and Mari Izzard.
After a particularly harsh winter, Brian goes into a deep depression. Completely isolated and with no one to talk to, he does what any sane person would do when faced with such a melancholic situation; he builds a robot.
Artificial intelligence developing its own consciousness is nothing new for sci-fi cinema whether serious or comedic, and so it’s hugely refreshing to see somebody take a totally different crack at it – on a tiny budget in the far-flung bluster of north Wales no less.
Jim Archer’s quasi-mockumentary Brian and Charles, expanded from his 2017 short film of the same name, follows the exploits of eccentric, cabbage-obsessed inventor Brian (David Earl) as he ekes out a reclusive, lonesome existence in rural Wales building impractical inventions like a flying cuckoo clock and trawler nets for shoes. When the village’s biggest drama involves a stale Choc Dip, who can blame his boredom?
But one day Brian decides to build himself a robot companion, comprised of a mannequin head attached to an old washing machine and something used for legs. Yet to Brian’s surprise, he soon discovers that the bot, which has taken the name Charles Petrescu and learned English by ingesting a dictionary, has developed a mind of his own, setting the unlikely father-son duo off on a journey of self-discovery.
Archer’s film is presented in the form of a mockumentary, though it’s evidently more a cute storytelling device than something you’re encouraged to consider practically. The film crew chimes in occasionally and Brian will acknowledge the presence of the camera every so often, but it’s largely a creative choice made for the sake of comedy. When Brian first encounters Charles having come to life at his cosy cottage home, the scene is executed in the genre-lampooning style of a found footage horror film.
As amusing as David Earl is in the role of our human protagonist, the sure star of the show is Charles, a crude cyborg maquette bearing a bit of a resemblance to Jim Broadbent. It’s obvious to anyone watching that the filmmakers simply put a man in a taped-together costume, which only adds to the production’s low-slung charm, as though assembled by friends in their own back garden.
Charles is portrayed in the film by co-writer Chris Hayward, who gives an impressive physical performance that approximates the stiffness of an actual robot. Yet as Charles becomes more cognisant of the world around him, there are also flourishes of recognisably human movement, not unlike those of an excited child. What truly seals the deal, though, is the inclusion of an hilariously deadpan robotic voice – think a posher variation on Microsoft Speech – which only makes the character’s pithy one-liners that much funnier.
Brian and Charles soon enough fall into a typical-yet-surreal father-son dynamic, as Charles’ childlike curiosity about the wider world clashes with Brian’s desire to protect him from harm. In one of the script’s most inspired gags, Charles goes through the expected rituals of adolescence, such as listening loudly to heavy metal music and moodily rebelling against his “dad.” When Charles insists it’s not fair that he’s not allowed to leave the house and explore the nearby town, Brian tells him in the most predictable fatherly rhetoric, “Life’s not fair.”
The first hour of the story is so much fun, in fact, that it’s a shame some measure of conflict has to inevitably arrive, when a local family learns of Charles’ existence and sets their sights on taking possession of him. Though this predicament touches briefly on intriguing notions of free will and ownership, it also inherently rips us out of the giddy, free-wheeling fun of a robot earning its soul. The finale does, at least, circle back to Brian’s status as an oddball inventor in a fun way, and wraps up with a sure sweetness as long as you don’t question the logistics too much.
Which is really Brian and Charles in a nutshell; don’t overthink the finer details, but luxuriate in the offbeat comedy, again proving that quality ideas will always prevail over massive budgets. Though he’s paired against a show-stealing sidekick, this is also a great showcase for David Earl’s talents; his motormouth shtick could become annoying in the hands of another, but he brings a subtle humanity to Brian that ensures he’s a genuinely likeable presence rather than pitiable.
All in all Charles is unlikely to end up standing tall alongside cinema’s pantheon of iconic robots, but one suspects the filmmakers are probably just fine with him being a more niche entry. This sweet, crowd-pleasing take on a familiar concept distinguishes itself through its charming DIY style and David Earl’s appealing comedic performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.