David Earl and Chris Hayward write and star in this hilarious, poignant and very British tale of a man and his artificial best friend
What a lovely thing it is to giggle. That belly-born, body-shaking, thunderous burst of laughter – harder to achieve as a goal rather than a consequence. But it's a reaction that director Jim Archer and writers David Earl and Chris Hayward manage to provoke in huge quantities across the length of their hilarious British comedy Brian and Charles, which tells the charming story of a lowly inventor and his makeshift companion.
Earl and Hayward star as the eponymous duo, the former playing Brian, a balaclava-wearing loner who spends his days concocting useless creations, while the latter is assigned the arduous task of standing inside a 7-feet structure cleverly built as a surrogate for Charles, a robot made out of a used washing machine and a balding mannequin head greatly resembling Jim Broadbent. One of Brian’s many experiments, Charles is an initial failure, relegated to lie next to the skeletons of past frustrations in the crammed shed-slash-workshop where he was made. One night, however, the funny-looking robot comes alive, his right eye shining a bright blue light through the windows of the beaten old cottage.
Charles communicates through the impersonal automated voice of a smartphone assistant and a vast yet unrefined vocabulary gathered from speed-reading a dictionary. Yet, despite all of his robotic manners, the droid seems to come fitted from the factory with the inherent human trait of empathy. When first meeting his maker, he extends his clunkily engineered hand and exclaims, “I am your friend,” an early emotional climax drenched in simple tenderness. This contrast between the absurdism of the premise and the compassion of the delivery firmly steadies the film in the safe territory between mawkishness and parody.
It is no mean feat for an actor to upstage a massive robot and this is precisely what comic David Earl manages to do here. A former gardener whose self-awareness refreshingly eschews performative self-deprecation, Earl possesses a welcome understanding of his strengths and how to best put them to use. Taking full advantage of the mockumentary set-up, the actor steals furtive glances at the camera whenever his newfound best friend surpasses the unpretentious expectations one has when it comes to rudimentary AI. When Charles veers into existentialism, questioning Brian on the essence of freedom, Earl offers silence in return – a response just as effective in its depth as in its comicality.
The construction of Charles – both as a physical structure and as a character – is enough to have one swiftly dipping into hyperbole: a strike of comedy genius, a future cult hit, an instant classic, and so on and so forth. It is easy to imagine new audiences, years and years from now, quoting the robot’s little quips, from his excited “Yummsville” when given some fresh cabbage (his favourite food) to the mechanic way in which he pronounces the name “Brian,” a delightful mishmash of automated vowels.
Life is rarely all roses, so of course hurdles are thrown into the relationship between the two central characters: Brian’s pained memories of ostracism lead him to hold Charles close, fear masked as care; Charles’ growing understanding of the human condition has him craving for independence; bad guys come into play and so do romantic partners. But all of these bumps seem to matter very little in the end, the film at its best when these two lovable outsiders sit on a stone wall in the middle of nowhere, the overwhelming vastness of nature a lovely reminder that life’s natural rhythms move even the most artificial of creations.
Brian and Charles is in UK cinemas from 8 July.Where to watch