With how science fiction filmmaking and special effects have evolved over the years, our expectations of what a cinematic robot looks like are reasonably high. They’re often depicted as highly complex, technologically sophisticated machines that are at times virtually indistinguishable from humans. The subversion of this trend is a huge part of what makes Brian and Charles so endearing, as we see a delightfully lo-fi robot essentially come of age in a sleepy Welsh village. Based on a short film that director Jim Archer created in 2017, Brian and Charles is an eccentric, charming delight, an understated movie with tremendous warmth despite its significant budgetary restrictions. Both Brian and Charms worm their way into your heart by its end, and it’s no good trying to escape it: Resistance is futile.
Brian (David Earl) is something of a local oddity. He keeps to himself, living on the outskirts of a small town, his main interactions with Hazel (Louise Brealey), a lonely woman who lives alone with her overbearing mother, and Eddie (Jamie Michie), the local bully who takes particular delight in tormenting him. Most of his time is spent inventing: He comes up with odd little gadgets made out of materials he finds lying around. They’re all … almost useful, like the drink attachment for a plunger so that you can have a refreshing beverage while you’re working a plumbing job, but ultimately a little misguided. Still, he proudly shows off his inventions to the camera, faux-documentary style, shy but clearly chuffed that he finally has someone to explain his work to.
It isn’t long before Brian embarks on his most ambitious project yet: He’s decided to build himself a fully functional robot right in his garage. And you might think, “Hey, wait, there’s no way that would actually work.” But that’s where you’re wrong. Because, miraculously, it does. The result is Charles, a seven-foot-tall, extremely top-heavy robot with a laundry machine for a torso and a mannequin’s head. He accumulates new knowledge rapidly, reading the entire dictionary while Brian is out on an errand.
He’s wildly endearing, with childlike innocence and natural curiosity about the world. Brian easily slides into a paternal role for Charles, excited by his joy at every new thing he experiences and thrilled at the rare opportunity for companionship. But Charles learns and grows so quickly that before too long, he’s not satisfied at the house day after day, with only Brian to interact with. He wants to see the world, something that terrifies Brian. He wants to go to Honolulu or, as he calls it, Honoluplup. Brian intends to protect Charles, but is it fair to hold him back from the new experiences he so desperately craves?
Brian and Charles features a charming and gentle sense of humor that comes primarily from the interactions between the two main characters. As Charles matures, he hits the robot version of his teenage years, and it’s hilarious to watch him cop an attitude with Brian in his own peculiar way. The film sometimes doesn’t feel as though it has quite enough content to fill it out – it’s very much about a concept rather than a plot that can sustain a feature-length movie. But even when it seems like it has nowhere else to go, narratively speaking, Brian and Charles has a powerful emotional heart that prevents it from falling flat. We buy into the relationship between these two oddballs, and in their battle against the town bully (who is by far the weakest element of the film, even if we accept the heightened reality that the characters exist in), there is unexpected magic in their utilization of Brian’s latest invention, the cabbage gun.
It’s this sort of unabashed quirkiness that elevates Brian and Charles well beyond what it, as an extremely low-budget independent comedy, has any right to aspire to. Full of warmth and genuine kindness, Brian and Charles operates in that niche of good-hearted British cinema that Paddington has recently reignited. And despite any mild criticisms about its thin plotting, Brian and Charles is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.