In the mid-late 90s, a wave of British comedies was released in the U.S. Films like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Little Voice, Still Crazy, and Waking Ned Devine supplied laughs based on quirky characters. 2022’s Brian and Charles is keeping that spirit alive, building humor out of an oddball main character and his whimsically melancholy life.
That main character is Brian (David Earl), a man who lives in a cottage outside of a small village in Wales. We can tell right away that Brian is lonely, awkward, and a little bit broken. He spends his days building odd inventions (a flying cuckoo clock, a combination plunger/thermos, trawling nets for shoes, etc.), and staying optimistic despite the inevitable failure of these creations. During a trip to the village, Brian comes across a treasure trove of junk, and in it, finds a mannequin head. He is inspired to make this head the centerpiece of his next invention: a robot. The design of this robot is one of the great early
laughs of the film. Brian gives his creation grey hair, glasses, and a washing machine for a torso. Dressed in slacks and “a big man’s shirt”, the robot looks like an ungainly pensioner. But the robot doesn’t turn out like Brian’s other inventions – instead, it works and works well. The robot wakes up and quickly begins to learn. Given a choice of several names, he decides to be called Charles (played by co-writer Chris Hayward). Charles Petrescu to be formal, with the last name coming from one of the odd books lying around Brian’s cottage. The film wisely gives no real reason why Charles suddenly starts to work. Brian has an explanation involving his pet mouse, but this may or may not be serious in the eyes of the film.
The film then becomes a beautiful, if occasionally obvious, metaphor for parenthood. Charles wishes to learn things from Brian, the way Brian learned things from his father. Brian sees himself as Charles’s protector, keeping him away from the village because he believes that the wider world isn’t safe. Charles begins to take an interest in the outside world, especially after seeing a television show about Honolulu (or Honolooploop, Honolala, and Hono, as he refers to it at various times in the film). Charles soon enters his teenage stage, becoming defiant against his creator. Forcing himself along on a trip to the village, Charles meets Hazel (Louise Brealey), a woman who Brian has a sweetly tentative flirtatious relationship with. But he is also spotted by Katrina (Lowri Izzard) and Suki (Mari Izzard), the cruel twin daughters of the village bully, Eddie (Jamie Michie). The girls want Charles for themselves, and when Brian and Hazel begin to date, leaving Charles at home alone, the villainous family gets their chance.
Built from the framework of a short film of the same name, Brian and Charles smartly retains its low stakes throughout, remaining true to itself when another version of the film may have gone much darker, or in a stranger sci-fi direction. It is a small film, and often a beautiful one. It is a film of multiple strengths. David Earl’s performance is terrific. His Brian is a sweet turn from the more vulgar characters he’s played in his collaborations with Ricky Gervais. The script, from Earl and Hayward, is full of wonderful moments and witty lines. It’s quirky throughout, with some truly emotional moments later in the narrative. Murren Tullett, on only his second narrative feature as cinematographer, does impressive work, taking full advantage of the gorgeous Welsh countryside. This is director Jim Archer’s feature debut, and he acquits himself strongly. The film is skillfully crafted and should launch the start of a promising career.
The film’s only weakness is that the mockumentary framework doesn’t work particularly well. It was likely the easiest way to set up the early parts of the film, which are often Brian alone at his cottage, explaining his inventions and talking about his life. But it adds nothing to the later, more traditionally narrative parts of the film. It tends to distract when Brian or other characters react to the camera crew, who remain unseen to the audience. But overall, this was an excellent film, surpassing expectations, and deserving of its Sundance buzz and recent Audience Award win at Sundance London. Well worth seeking out when it arrives in theaters this week.