7.7

Brian and Charles Imagines a Very Charming, Very British Artificial Intelligence Fable

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<i>Brian and Charles</i> Imagines a Very Charming, Very British Artificial Intelligence Fable

A.I. Artificial Intelligence features a robot who yearns for genuine, human motherly love. Ex Machina stars a cyborg with a chilling knack for outsmarting humans. Brian and Charles renders a machine obsessed with cabbage.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait, I like my robots gritty, controversial, morally and ethically dubious! I’m sympathetic. I used to be in the same boat. That is, until Jim Archer’s emotional and well-told feature debut came along and more or less knocked my cynical socks off.

Brian and Charles follows Brian (the film’s co-writer, master of comic timing and longtime Ricky Gervais collaborator David Earl), a sad-sack hermit living in the remote Welsh countryside who has begun staving off loneliness by conceiving bizarre contraptions in his garage. The only problem is that Brian’s inventions are profoundly stupid and hardly ever work.

That is, until Charles (co-writer Chris Hayward) comes along. Brian decides to fabricate a robot companion using an old washing machine, oversized clothes, a gardening glove and a mildly unsettling dummy head. We’ve learned by now not to ever trust that Brian’s concoctions will work. But it turns out that Charles is the exception. He materializes into a posh-sounding, exceptionally cheeky creature not long after Brian flicks the “on” switch.

From there, Brian and Charles forge a pleasant friendship, which sees the latter through childlike curiosity, a delightfully vexing rebellious phase, and beyond. The core of Brian and Charles is a story about the importance of friendship, imbued with a real edge of genuine, dry British humor—kind of like Withnail & I if you were to replace Withnail with a robot who was built from a washing machine.

If this sounds a little overly sentimental and obvious, well, it certainly can be at times. During the third act, Archer hammers the friendship point just a little too hard with an entertaining but needless storyline about the town bullies attempting to kidnap Charles for nefarious purposes. Little more than on-the-nose villains, the bullies feel like a forced stand-in for “bad” (in contrast with the “good” Brain and Charles). The film would have been far more poignant and genuine without such a thematic clobber. On top of that, the bully-centric storyline calls attention to Brian and Charles’s origin as a short film, and Archer’s likely worries that the feature would feel too aimless and limited without added plot. The feature already has enough tension: Charles yearns to explore the world, but given that he is more or less a talking washing machine, Brian has to convince the ever-curious soul that their little countryside cottage is enough.

Still, despite its third-act shortcomings, Brian and Charles is fiercely original and elegantly feel-good. The A.I. film has been done hundreds of times, but never quite like this. Here, Frankenstein is not a tech-savvy scientist or someone dismayed by the direction of the human race. Rather, he is a tragically optimistic, dim-witted sod solely in search of a friend. And when Charles becomes sentient, there is no sense of anxiety that he will kill a young girl by the side of a river, or outsmart his owner and go take over the world. There is no question regarding the ethics of artificial intelligence. This is a story of friendship—no more, no less.

Archer’s mockumentary format bolsters Earl and Hayward’s wry British humor. This stylistic choice is a perfect vehicle for Earl’s delightfully awkward performance as Brian, who frequently glances at the camera a la The Office to express discomfort, and who engages with the crew behind the camera in a hilariously blundering manner. The shaky, lo-fi camerawork mirrors Brian’s DIY lifestyle. It impeccably suits the film’s humor, but it is never explained why such an inconsequential man is being followed around by a camera crew. Suspension of disbelief has to be in play on more than one account in Brian and Charles.

Which brings us to Charles. The most endearing screen robot since WALL-E, he exudes enthusiasm and childlike wonder at every turn, while also inspiring genuine laughs with his backtalk to Brian. But there is unfortunately a glaring problem with Charles, too: He looks like a human in a robot suit. Hayward would have served the character better by giving him creaky, robotic gestures, but instead, his arms and legs maneuver far too fluidly for us to suspend enough of our disbelief.

But Brian and Charles isn’t striving to be a technical achievement, and it works well as a thoughtful, sentimental, funny, uplifting buddy comedy. It’s quite a feat for a feature debut, and is guaranteed to leave you waiting for what Jim Archer will do next.

Director: Jim Archer
Writers: David Earl, Chris Hayward
Stars: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, Jamie Michie, Nina Sosanya
Release Date: June 17, 2022


Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.