If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our days of social distancing (and it seems that’s a big “if”), it’s that isolation will do weird things to the human brain. Social media gave us a unique window into the strange pursuits everyone else used to stave off boredom, from sourdough starters to Animal Crossing to making an inspirational singalong video with all of our celebrity friends. Faced with tedium and loneliness, we’ll do just about anything to keep ourselves occupied; it’s either that, after all, or madness.
Brian (David Earl) is more accustomed to solitude than most: a middle-aged man, he lives alone in a tumbledown shack (which he calls “Ploxgreen Cottage”) amidst a sea of sheep fields on the outskirts of a remote Welsh village. To pass the time, Brian busies himself in his workshop. His creations, for the most part, aren’t quite “inventions” in the sense that we are accustomed to– gadgets to satisfy an unmet need– so much as manifestations of whatever stray thoughts cross his mind; consider the makeshift trawler nets he mounts to the heels of his shoes (to catch what, it’s unclear) or his ever-present “pinecone bag” (“It’s pretty much a bag covered in pinecones,” he sheepishly acknowledges to the camera). Brian’s inventions may be useless, but they bring a bit of happiness to his uneventful life.
Uneventful, that is, until Brian discovers a mannequin head in a garbage dump, inspiring him to finally take a crack at one of his longtime ambitions: building a robot. The resulting creation is predictably crude– he places the head atop a washing machine, perched on a pair of wooden legs and wrapped in a size-XXXL cardigan– but, following a standard-issue mad-scientist thunderstorm, Brian’s robot miraculously springs to life. The automaton, which Brian dubs Charles (“Charles Petrescu,” the robot immediately adds, in what becomes one of the film’s funniest running gags), initially behaves like something between a small child and a golden retriever, looking with marvel at the outside world and dancing a little jig at the promise of a cabbage dinner (seemingly the only food either character eats). Brian, for his part, initially wants to hide his new friend from the world, but Charles’ enthusiasm helps draw him out of his shell, and soon he finds himself striking up an awkward friendship with equally shy local Hazel (Louise Brealey). But Charles also attracts the attention of bullying rival junker Eddie (Jamie Michie), and Brian begins to fear that their idyllic days at Ploxgreen may be numbered.
Like much of the best British comedy, the humor of Brian and Charles manages to simultaneously hyperspecific and broadly accessible; I’m sure the film and its characters take on an added dimension to viewers familiar with the culture of rural Wales, but it’s just as pleasurable to simply watch Brian describe his nonsensical inventions with his funny little voice. The film is funny on an almost childlike level, but its humor is keenly observed. Earl (who cowrote the screenplay with Chris Hayward, who operates Charles) has developed Brian over the years across his standup act and various podcasts and TV shows, and one can tell that he knows his character inside and out. Even when we hear him close an unheard anecdote with “…and that’s the story of how I wound up with two identical straw hats,” it’s hard to doubt that he knows the entire story inside and out.
Of course, the most distinctive aspect of Brian and Charles is its titular robot, who has to count as one of the most unique comic creations of recent years. Despite being seemingly engineered to be as inexpressive as possible– his immobile face, his boxy torso, his Stephen Hawking voicebox– Hayward manages to flesh him out into a lovable (if utterly ridiculous) character. Charles ingests information from Brian’s stacks of haphazardly-shelved books (he teaches himself to speak by speed-reading the dictionary in one night), but is adept at translating these facts into human behavior as, well, a robot made of spare parts; his version of “sleeping,” for example, is to lie down on his back and loudly repeat “I AM SLEEPING” every five seconds. Yet there’s also something eminently relatable about Charles’ childlike enthusiasm (and, later, teenagerly petulance). Charles is pure, mechanized id, and whether he’s improvising a graceless dance or trying to run away to Honolulu (complete with makeshift grass skirt), his joie de vivre is infectious.
And yet, for all its wackiness, there is an element of melancholy to Brian and Charles, almost imperceptible yet wholly undeniable. “Things went a bit topsy-turvy in my life,” Brian narrates in the opening scene, “I was very alone… and that’s when I just started making stuff.” We never learn what went topsy-turvy– there’s no flashback to his tragic backstory, as there might have been in a Hollywood production– but we don’t need to. The point is that he was sad, and while his cockeyed inventions kept him occupied, there was, in Brian’s words, “a scratch I never quite itched.” From what we see of his interactions, Brian is generally well-liked in his village, but Charles is the first person (roughly speaking) who he can rightly call a friend. In his unaffected naivete, Charles allows Brian to open up, and to see both the world and himself through eyes unblinkered by hardship. When Charles’ guilelessness finally does get him in trouble, we find ourselves genuinely upset, both because we’ve come to love this big, stupid robot, and because we worry what his absence might do to his human companion.
I suspect not everyone will be won over by Brian and Charles; it is a slight movie, and does threaten at times to teeter into preciousness (the twinkly score by Daniel Pemberton does it no favors in this regard). But I found myself completely won over by this strange little comedy and its steadfastly odd cast of characters, a surprise as pleasant as they come. The year is sure to have bigger and flashier movies up its sleeve, but I don’t suspect many will bring as big a smile to my face as I think back on them. And when it comes time to cast my ballot for Best Actor, it will be difficult to not write in Charles Petrescu.
Brian and Charles
dir. Jim Archer
Opens Friday, 6/17 @ Kendall Square Cinema