‘Brian and Charles’ review: weird robot comedy filled with human emotion

Ricky Gervais collaborator David Earl has come up with a must-watch AI bromance

What if Wallace never met Gromit? Take away the dog (and the Plasticine) from Aardman’s cartoon and you sort of have the setup for Jim Archer’s oddball indie charmer – a loveably low-fi dramedy about an eccentric loner who decides to make his own best friend.

Like Wallace, Brian (David Earl from Derek and After Life) loves to invent things. Unlike Wallace, he’s terrible at it. Living alone in a ramshackle barn on the outskirts of a rainy Welsh village, he spends his days tinkering away in his shed making rubbish. There’s the egg belt (“a belt for eggs”). The combination toilet plunger and thermos. A flying grandfather clock strapped to a bike. Hidden under a woolly balaclava and thick milk-bottle glasses, Brian longs for a friend but doesn’t know where to find one. Until he finds an old mannequin head in a skip.

Sticking the head on the body of a broken washing machine, Brian somehow makes a robot. Springing to life in a thunderstorm, the creepy junk Frankenstein starts moving and talking – reading a whole dictionary, naming himself Charles Petrescu, and lurching around the house with the voice of an autotuned BBC newsreader. Of course, Charles is clearly just a bloke (co-writer Chris Hayward) crouched in a cardboard box holding a rubber head on a stick, but that only adds to the charm. Borrowing its look from Withnail And I, the tone from Swiss Army Man and a couple of plot points from Lars And The Real Girl, Brian And Charles somehow still comes out feeling like a warm and fuzzy family movie.

Even more, though, is borrowed from Ricky Gervais, with Earl channelling his own quirky characters from After Life and Derek, as well as adlibbing to the film’s Office-style camera crew. Hard to warm to at first, Earl overplays Brian’s quirks so much he slips into parody. But as he starts letting his sad side out it’s hard not to see how much love has been poured into the character – with the introduction of shy love-interest Hazel (Louise Brealey from Mitchell and Webb sitcom Back) almost lending the film more heart than it knows what to do with.

The real star, though, is Charles. Just about staying the funny side of frightening, he steals every scene he’s in with his staggering weirdness. Starting out sweetly childlike, he ages quickly into a sulky teen (wanting to go out on his own and blasting Rage Against The Machine in his bedroom), getting all of the film’s best laughs by just standing in the corner.

At its heart, Brian and Charles is the same kid-with-a-robot film you’ve seen a million times before. Nothing really happens that hasn’t already happened in Short Circuit, Bumblebee and The Iron Giant – and yet Archer’s film always feels utterly unique. Looking as handmade as its loveable leads and carrying enough odd wit and subtle warmth to put the multiplex to shame, this is British indie cinema at its weird best. See it before it all falls apart at the seams.

Details

  • Director: Jim Archer
  • Starring: David Earl, Chris Haywood, Louise Brealey
  • Release date: July 8 (in cinemas)
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