Review: ‘Brian and Charles,’ starring David Earl and Chris Hayward

June 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

David Earl and Chris Hayward in “Brian and Charles” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Brian and Charles”

Directed by Jim Archer

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed rural village in Wales, the comedy/drama film “Brian and Charles” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few people of Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely, middle-aged inventor creates a talking robot to be his companion, but the local village bully is a threat to the robot’s safety.

Culture Audience: “Brian and Charles” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in endearing movies about unconventional friendships.

David Earl and Louise Brealey in “Brian and Charles” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Simple yet effective, the comedy/drama “Brian and Charles” has witty charm that’s both low-key and laugh-out-loud funny. Audiences will root for the underdogs in this memorable story about a friendship between a lonely inventor and the outspoken robot he created. “Brian and Charles” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) is also an admirable feature-film debut from director Jim Archer, whose previous work has been in television and short films.

Much of the creative success of “Brian and Charles” also comes from co-writers David Earl and Chris Hayward, who co-star in the movie as the title characters. Earl, Hayward and director Archer adapted “Brian and Charles” from their 2017 short film of the same name. At times, the feature-length version of “Brian and Charles” seems like a collection of skit scenes to stretch out a concept that was originally in a short film, but it doesn’t really feel like unnecessary filler since every scene has a purpose in the development of the movie’s characters.

“Brian and Charles” also doesn’t clutter up the story with too many characters. That’s mainly because the entire movie takes place and was filmed on location in an unnamed rural village in Wales. In this village, a middle-aged inventor named Brian (played by Earl) lives by himself in a very cluttered cottage that has a few other small buildings on the property. It’s a farm-like property where he can grow some of his own food, but he also goes to a local convenience store to buy anything else that he might need. The convenience store has a friendly clerk named Winnie (played by Lynn Hunter), who sees a lot of what’s going on with the villagers, since the store is the closest of its kind in the area.

“Brian and Charles” is filmed as if it’s a mockumentary, because an unnamed and unseen filmmaker is documenting Brian’s life. The director can be heard occasionally talking to Brian off-camera. Brian is an eccentric loner who makes things that no one really wants to buy. In the beginning of the movie, he talks about how he’s financially struggling. “I started making stuff, inventions, I guess,” he comments on how he coped with being a social outsider.

Brian shows some of his inventions that include an egg belt, which is essentially a tool belt made for eggs. Another “invention,” which is really just a fashion design, is a pine cone purse, which is basically a purse with pine cones glued to it. Brian mentions that when he’s not tinkering in his garage on his inventions, he sometimes likes to go to the local pub. At home, Brian’s only living companion is a brown mouse that he calls Mr. Williams.

One day, Brian happens to find the head of a male mannequin in a trash dump area. He brings this mannequin head to his home and announces to the camera: “I’m building a robot. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.” Brian explains that he wants this robot to be “strong and agile,” so “it can help me with things around the house.”

It isn’t long before Brian has completed the robot (played by Hayward), which he proudly introduces. This robot, which stands about 7 feet tall, has artificial intelligence and a hodgepodge of body parts, including a midsection made from an old washing machine. Brian quips “I’ve learned that building a robot is much like making a cake. You start off wanting Victoria sponge, and it comes out like a blancmange. That’s fine, because I love blancmanges.”

Brian thinks that this robot will be a passive invention that will do whatever Brian tells it to do. But on a rainy night of thunder and lightning, Brian hears what appears to be an intruder rummaging around outside near the house. A terrified Brian goes outside and finds out the “intruder” is really the robot, which has found some cabbage that it wants to eat. The robot’s fixation on cabbage becomes a recurring joke in the movie.

Brian scolds the robot to put the cabbage down. But it’s at this moment that Brian knows that the robot has a mind of its own and is resisting Brian’s efforts to bring the robot in the house. “This is overwhelming,” Brian comments on discovering that this robot has a tendency to be defiant.

Eventually, Brian is able to calm down the robot, and Brian decides that it’s time to give the robot a name. It’s an amusing scene, where the robot recoils in displeasure when Brian first suggests the names Tony and Clive. The implication is that the robot thinks that those names aren’t “cool enough” or wouldn’t fit the personality for the robot.

But when Brian brings up the name Charles, the robot is pleased with that suggestion. The robot, whose voice sounds like a male computer voice, then adds that his name is Charles Petrescu. The name sticks, and the robot is officially named Charles.

Brian soon finds out that although Charles has encyclopedic knowledge about many things, Charles often acts like a rebellious kid who has to be told repeatedly what the house rules are. Charles often ignores the rules, much to Brian’s frustration. However, Charles is also a loyal companion to Brian.

Brian and Charles have fun playing outdoor games and watching television. There’s a funny montage of Brian and Charles bonding, such as dancing to the Communards’ cover version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” in the kitchen, or doing outdoor activities while the Turtles’ “Happy Together” plays on the movie’s soundtrack. There’s also a sweet-natured scene when Brian and Charles tell each other, “I’m your friend.”

An example of how Charles whimsically reacts to the world is when Brian and Charles are watching television one day, and they see a travel report about Hawaii, including footage of hula dancers. Charles gets immediately excited and says that he wants to go to Hawaii, specifically Honolulu (which he has trouble pronouncing), but Brian says they can’t afford it. Not long afterward, Brian comes home to see Charles out in the yard wearing a hula dancer skirt made out of paper instead of grass.

Brian knows that Charles is special, so he’s very reluctant to tell or show other people that Charles exists. One of the main reasons for this secrecy is that the villagers live in fear of the village bully Eddie Tommington (played by Jamie Michie), a middle-aged brute who doesn’t hesitate to get violent when he wants to intimidate people. Eddie is also a thief who steals from the locals. And when he goes into the convenience store, it’s not unusual for Eddie to scare Winnie into letting him walk out with merchandise without paying.

Eddie lives in a ramshackle house with his girlfriend or wife Pam (played by Nina Sosanya) and his twin teenage daughters Katrina (played by Lowri Izzard) and Suki (played by Mari Izzard), all of whom are very crass and mean-spirited. Pam used to date Brian before she was with Eddie, although it’s never made clear how long ago Brian and Pam were involved with each other. Brian’s past with Pam is all the more reason for Eddie to have bad blood with Brian.

But someone in the village eventually does find out about Charles. Her name is Hazel, a shy middle-aged bachelorette (played by Louise Brealey), who lives with her domineering and cranky mother June (played by Cara Chase) and their pet parrot. From the moment that viewers see Charles and Hazel together, it’s obvious that these two lovelorn singles are romantically attracted to each other but are hesitant to do anything about this attraction.

Hazel finds out about Charles when she sees Charles in Brian’s truck after Brian has driven into town to do some shopping. Brian has decided that it’s time to bring Charles with him into town, so that Charles could see more of the village besides Brian’s property. Hazel takes an instant liking to Charles, who amusingly tries to be a little bit of a matchmaker, by encouraging Brian to ask Hazel out on a date.

Before Charles and Brian took their trip into town, there was some arguing between Charles and Brian over where Charles was going sit in the truck. Brian wanted Charles to sit in the back, while Charles insisted on sitting in the front. Charles got his way. During the trip, Charles asks Brian, “Are we there yet?” It’s another example of how the movie makes Charles a mixture of having the intelligence and identity of an adult but the impatience and curiosity of a child.

Eddie, who hosts a big bonfire party in the village every year, eventually finds out about Charles too. It leads to the movie’s main conflict, which plays out in a way that is somewhat predictable, but nevertheless emotionally touching. Eddie, Pam, Katrina and Suki aren’t much more than bully stereotypes, with no meaningful background information given on Eddie or anyone else in the household. Pam’s past relatonship with Brian is barely mentioned.

In the “oddball” friendship and comedic rapport between Brian and Charles, Brian is the obvious straight man to unpredictable and wacky Charles. However, what the movie does so well is show how both of these friends end up learning from each other in ways that they did not expect. Hayward’s hilarious physical and vocal performance as Charles will convince viewers that this robot has a true personality and not just artificial intelligence.

Some viewers might be disappointed in “Brian and Charles” if they’re expecting to see more action-adventure scenes in the movie. It’s definitely more of a “slice of life” film that focuses on everyday occurrences instead of trying to have exaggerated or outlandish escapades for this unusual robot and its inventor. For audiences who like movies about ordinary people who go out of their comfort zones and learn from these experiences, “Brian and Charles” offers a poignant and delightful story that leaves quite an impression.

Focus Features will release “Brian and Charles” in select U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022.

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