Nina Sosanya

Brian & Charles

08/07/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Like a grimy Wallace (pal of Gromit), Brian is an inventor. Unlike his plasticine doppelganger, Brian (David Earl) rarely enjoys success. His flying clock erupts in flames while still firmly earth-bound, and his plunger-water-bottle is an exercise in unhygienic futility. Nevertheless, he persists. Before long, he’s embarking on his most ambitious project to date, a robot – improbably fashioned from a discarded mannequin head, a washing machine and a rubber glove. All it takes is a stormy night on the Welsh hills, and Brian-Wallace-Frankenstein finds himself in possession of a fully-functioning AI called Charles (Chris Hayward).

Earl (who, with Hayward, co-wrote the film) imbues Brian with a likeable vulnerability. He’s a lonely, sweet-natured man, who’d be content with his ramshackle life – cabbage-heavy diet and all – if only he had someone to share it with. The friendship Charles provides bolsters Brian’s confidence, and soon he’s mustered up the courage to ask his friend, Hazel (Louise Brealey), to join him and Charles on a day out. A gentle, touching romance ensues.

Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. Not only does Brian have to deal with Charles’ (very funny) adolescent mood swings, he’s also the target of local bully, Eddie (Jamie Michie), and his terrifying teenage daughters, Katrina and Suki (Lowri and Mari Izzard). Can he protect his invention from their cruelty?

There’s a lot to like about this film, not least its warm heart and quirky humour. Directed by Jim Archer, there are many laugh-out-loud moments, and the characters are convincingly drawn. The Welsh landscape is another joy: Snowdonia national park looks glorious, even under heavy cloud, and Llyn Gwynant is breathtakingly beautiful.

But there are issues. My main bugbear is with the accents and their subtext. Apart from a few minor roles, the cast comprises essentially three goodies (Brian, Charles and Hazel) and four baddies (Eddie, Katrina, Suki and Nina Sosanya’s Pam). While the baddies all speak with pronounced Welsh accents, the goodies, for no discernible reason, have English ones. For Charles, this might seem fair enough: he is a robot, after all. But Hazel lives with her mother, Winnie (Lynn Hunter), who has a Welsh accent, and Brian makes reference to his father teaching him to build the fences around his cottage when he was young; they’re both local through and through, and there’s no mention of either of them ever having lived elsewhere. Did no one think about the connotations here?

There are plot holes too. It’s a fun film to watch, but it doesn’t bear much scrutiny. I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers, but where does the money come for from Brian’s final gesture, for example? And why has Hazel – who’s kept horribly busy by Winnie – suddenly got so much free time? More importantly, Brian & Charles at first appears to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with Brian directly addressing the camera, and even receiving spoken replies from the film-maker. As the story progresses, this device peters out, and a more straightforward narrative form is deployed. This feels awkward and unresolved.

I’m a little saddened by Brian & Charles, because it would only take a few tweaks to make it utterly loveable.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Red Joan

11/04/20

Netflix

We missed Red Joan at the cinema, so tonight, searching Netflix, we’re pleased to see it’s now available to watch at home. Sadly, despite having Trevor Nunn at the helm and Dame Judi in the lead role, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Actually, the disappointment is partly because of the Dame. Not that she puts a foot wrong, of course, just that she’s not given anywhere to put her feet at all. She has almost nothing to do.

Red Joan is very loosely based on the true story of Melita Norwood, a cold war spy whose crimes only came to light in the 1990s, when she was an old woman. Here, in a script by Lindsay Shapero based on a novel by Jennie Rooney, Norwood is reimagined as Joan, a Cambridge physics student, who falls for the glamour of the communist set, before landing a graduate job working on the H bomb. Dench plays Old Joan, an eighty-year-old woman living a quiet suburban life, whose sudden arrest is a shock to everyone around her, not least her barrister son, Nick (Ben Miles). But, as her interrogator (Nina Sosanya) barks questions at her, Dench’s role mainly consists of listening impassively, then twisting her lips and saying, ‘Well…’

And then, each time, we’re into flashback territory, and the real lead role is clearly Young Joan, played with aplomb by Sophie Cookson, who is clearly destined for major stardom. But not only is this a criminal waste of Dench’s talent, the repetitive structure makes the film feel lumpen and heavy.

It’s nicely acted by all concerned, and the period details are lovingly realised. There are some interesting moral questions raised; it’s a very watchable movie. But, overall, Red Joan doesn’t quite cut it. It’s not sharp enough, not bold enough. Perhaps it’s just too much of a compromise: too far removed from the real story to have any heft, Norwood’s less palatable tale neutered to make Joan’s actions more morally acceptable.

There’s a better way to tell this tale.

3 stars

Susan Singfield