In Cinemas

Brian and Charles review – a comedy cult classic in the making

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

More Reviews...

Where Is Anne Frank review – often beautiful but deeply frustrating parable

A harrowing Holocaust milieu proves a very bad fit for a silly YA story that is let down by leaden voice acting

Blind Ambition review – crowdpleasing doc is begging for a feature adaptation

This story of the first Zimbabwean team to compete at an international wine-tasting competition is utterly charming

Nope review – Jordan Peele does it again with electrifying, original sci-fi

Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer are on tremendous form in a bold grappling with art that sets a new precedent for the blockbuster

Eiffel review – nonsensical biopic propped up by a fiery amour fou

Chemistry between Romain Duris and Emma Mackey just about saves an otherwise ludicrous attempt in historical revisionism

Features

American Prophet: Jodie Foster and Contact

To coincide with the 25th anniversary of Robert Zemeckis' sci-fi classic, Luke Walpole looks back on its perfectly pitched lead turn

Stream With a Theme: The Best Jane Austen Films

As the latest take on Persuasion comes to Netflix, Steph Green highlights some of the author's finest screen adaptations to date

20 Best Films of 2022 (So Far)

With the year at the halfway point, our writers choose their favourite films, from Bollywood bangers to belated blockbusters

Best of the Fest: Il Cinema Ritrovato

Fedor Tot reflects on this year's incarnation of the Italian festival dedicated to rediscovering and reframing the cinema of the past