“I was very low,” we hear lonesome inventor (and cabbage enthusiast) Brian’s voiceover say at the start of Jim Archer’s “Brian and Charles,” a textured, melancholic and eccentrically funny mockumentary set in a remote corner of North Wales. With the camera luring the audience into his charmingly cluttered country-home workshop straight out of a storybook, Brian thoughtfully continues to reflect on some topsy-turvy circumstances he’s battled with in his past and how inventing original tools and gadgets was the calling that helped him reclaim his life.
If only he were actually making something marketable or even remotely useful. But despite mostly creating impractical junk that no one in his town wants — like a cabbage bin, a pinecone bag, a belt to carry eggs, a nonsensical puzzle made of ping pong balls and a ridiculous flying clock that crash-lands during a hysterical test run — Brian still stares into the camera with a subtly proud smile. So what if he isn’t exactly Nikola Tesla? Isn’t it the effort and imagination that counts?
Those who have previously seen Archer’s 2017 “Brian and Charles” short, which also stars David Earl (as Brian) and Chris Hayward (as Charles), will already come to this modest film with a deep affection for Brian and his rubbish handiwork, joyously featured amid Hannah Purdy Foggin’s playful production design. For the rest of us, the speed with which we find ourselves genuinely caring for this weird soul feels like a small miracle, especially because a stubborn man a bit too pleased with his own trivial pursuits could easily turn insufferable as a cinematic subject. But the unusual loner wins us over quickly all the same, thanks in large part to the script’s compassionate tone that neither mocks nor glorifies Brian (whose geeky innocence is brilliantly brought to life by Earl). Instead, writers Earl and Hayward gently underscore the recluse’s isolation through bittersweet details of his humble daily life, adding a healthy dose of humorously deadpan Britishness into the mix to winning effect.
On the screen, the duo are equally committed to portraying their characters with disarming sincerity, a disposition aided by Daniel Pemberton’s whimsical score that elevates their uplifting fable. As Charles, a peculiar talking robot and pretty much Brian’s only substantial invention that works, Hayward’s performance lands somewhere between mechanical (he short-circuits on occasion) and humanoid. The 7-foot-tall machine — with a torso made out of a washing machine, head plucked from a mannequin and overall boxy figure that resembles the small-headed hunter in “Beetlejuice” — feels like a real character as soon as Brian gives him life to alleviate his own loneliness. With nods to the likes of “Frankenstein,” “Pinocchio” and most of all “Wallace & Gromit” as a pair of outcasts cozily making the most of their inadequate means, the two gradually form a peculiarly heartwarming familial relationship, rendered through sweet-natured montages, the best of which is accompanied by the bouncy The Turtles track, “Happy Together.” You know what they say: “Alone, bad. Friend, good.”
Throughout their excursions, Charles propels Brian to gain some social skills and even pursue a romantic interest, the supportive and mild-mannered Hazel (Louise Brealey). But Charles grows increasingly tired of their arrangement and clashing priorities, demanding a free life of his own like a genie yearning to break free from his lamp. With Brian’s longtime nemesis — the bullying, tough-as-nails farmer Eddie (Jamie Michie) — lurking over them to possibly steal and even harm Charles, the offbeat pair gradually find themselves in an unreasonable pickle, facing a decision about their future together.
Eddie doesn’t feel wholly developed as a plausible villain, infusing the film only with a mild sense of conflict. Likewise, Hazel remains one-note throughout her brief screen time. At times, you get the sense that Earl and Hayward have spread themselves too thin in their pursuit to expand their genial short into a feature length movie, relying too heavily on the returns of British quirk. In that regard, “Brian and Charles” might not quite sustain its theatrical run due to its limited and admittedly feel repetitive offerings. Still, one can’t really dismiss Archer’s delightful excursion into that very human need to build meaningful connections and to leave something significant behind. A deceptively unserious movie it may be, but “Brian and Charles” leaves a serious trace through its pure sense of optimism.