Uncanny yet familiar, ‘Brian and Charles’ warmly explores loneliness, companionship

Photo of Brian and Charles film
Bankside Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Brian Gittins lives alone in a cottage on the outskirts of a rural Welsh village. He spends his days eating cabbages, playing darts with himself and creating inventions that are never quite as functional as they are imaginative. Brian is optimistic, yet a long-weathered melancholy escapes through every smile. Even the sheep wandering the endless grassy fields seem less alone than he is.

Everything changes when Brian is inspired to build a robot, and by some stroke of luck, his most ambitious project turns out to be the most successful. Newly animated, Charles enters the world, and for the first time in a long time, Brian has a friend.

This tender friendship between human and robot is the core of “Brian and Charles,” a film equal parts humorous and gloomy with a dash of creepily unsettling. In the comfort and confines of their humble home, Brian (David Earl) teaches curious Charles (Chris Hayward) about the world around them — a world he is forbidden to navigate. 

As their relationship grows increasingly tense, Charles is discovered by Hazel (Louise Brealey), a local woman whom Brian has feelings for. The dangerous consequences of the robot’s emergence in the outside world teaches both friends about the realities of life beyond Brian’s cottage walls and the importance of facing them head on.

Brian and Charles are a strange, but lovable pair. The two find comfort in each other’s company, and their relationship is, ironically, immensely human. Brian is well-intentioned, caring, down on his luck; Charles is brilliant, snarky yet naïve. The characters are complex and complete, and this thorough character development results in the loyal pursuit of clearly defined goals. 

The film is eccentric and weird, but unlike Brian’s cowshed-turned-“invention pantry,” the plot is neat and organized. This not only makes for an entertaining and orderly watching experience, but ensures that the surreal elements of the film decorate the plot rather than subvert it. Audiences could remain immersed in the strange universe with Brian and Charles for hours.

Earl’s performance as Brian is remarkable; much of Brian’s complexity is revealed through Earl’s nuanced facial expressions, subtle mannerisms and line delivery. So much emotion is conveyed through uneasy smiles and furrowed brows. Earl succeeds in not only portraying Brian as incredibly sympathetic, but does so with so much merit, viewers will find themselves forgetting that he’s fictional at all.

Hayward’s performance as Charles is also worthy of praise. The robot, whose body is a washing machine, expresses most of his emotion through the limited movements of his limbs. Hayward’s evident aptitude for physical comedy ensures that Charles moves robotically and hilariously while experiencing excitement, sadness and everything in between.

However, not every aspect of the film is as thoughtful as the character development and acting. “Brian and Charles” uses a confusing mockumentary format, with an in-universe camera crew documenting Brian’s life. The crew is directly addressed and interacted with a few times in the film, then invisible and forgotten about during the rest. The mysterious camera crew is also never explained; audiences never learn who they are, what they’re creating or why they are following Brian. 

The film demands a lot of suspension of disbelief, and while most of the unelaborated mysteries in the film — including Charles’ animation — are quickly forgiven, the frustrating lack of explanation for the intent behind the documentary is not so easily forgotten.

Despite this, audiences forgive this unclosed door in due time. A charming exploration of friendship unlike any other, viewers will happily disappear in the odd, refreshing fictional world of “Brian and Charles.” Audiences are sure to learn something about humanity from this determined inventor and passionate, adventurous robot.

Joy Diamond covers film. Contact her at [email protected].