He shaped the very face of modern comedy with his endearing portrayals of the everyman as the Little Tramp. His life though was anything but comical, as this telling portrait of Charles Chaplin details. Based on ‘My Autobiography’ by Chaplin himself and a more indepth telling by David Robinson in ‘Chaplin – His Life and Art’, the story of Chaplin’s poor and miserable childhood right through to his death in the 1970s is laid out before us.
Chaplin grew up poor in London, the son of a Vaudeville singer. He and his brother worked as children in workhouses to bring in extra money while his mother took in work singing and darning gloves. Around Chaplin’s eighteenth birthday, his mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour led her to an asylum while he and his brother Sidney struggled to make a living as actors.
Charlie went to America on tour and while in Butte, Montana, he was asked to come to California to star in a film for 150 dollars a week (a huge sum back then). Hollywood was in its infancy at this point and Chaplin exploited this as his notoriety grew, finally starting his own studio. His films though suffered what could be looked upon as a form of hereditary insanity as his perfectionism alienated his actors, his friends and his staff. Chaplin would sometimes shoot over two or three hundred takes, striving to get the perfect shot, and this distanced him from a community that churned films out at a rate of two per week.
|"You know the worst thing about age? You can’t defend yourself..."|
Meanwhile, Chaplin’s yearning for a childhood sweetheart saw him accompanying numerous young ladies to social settings and marrying a few who consistently managed to take him to the cleaners during quite public divorces.
One great thing about this film is the friendship Chaplin shared with swashbuckling heartthrob of the day Douglas Fairbanks. Not greatly touched upon in other works, here the friendship is examined and used well to play out some quite comical scenes. Director Richard Attenborough obviously has a great feel for Chaplin-esque comedy and even utilises it in the film in obvious homage. It helps tie the era into the Chaplin biography and adds a very welcome and warm affection for Chaplin and his life of extremes.
Attenborough even throws in Chaplin markers that any fan will recognise from his films. The characters around him growing up become the blind flower girl from City Lights. His efforts of escape from the workhouses in his youth become comedic chase sequences of Keystone Cops. There are numerous other triggers like this to immerse us in Chaplin’s inspiration and affectations which concentrates the overall film into the titular character. Chaplin’s invention of possibly the most recognised movie star of all time in the Little Tramp is first told in magical mystery and when caught for adding the fanciful details, he explains that the truth is so boring. Then we see what actually happened as Chaplin found the character and Attenborough gives a slight tip of the hat to Chaplin in making it into a comedic sequence that Charlie would have been proud of. Not saying that Chaplin was missing the point, rather that he had the magic he couldn’t see himself in making an everyday action appear funny.
Attenborough’s film is well told with affection for Chaplin and this is evident throughout, even as we witness Charlie suffering the slings and arrows of a community driven against him by ill-informed paranoids. There are things left out though, like the death of Chaplin’s first son and inspiration for one of Chaplin’s best films in The Kid. However, the film is long at 138 minutes and no doubt pieces had to be removed. When considering the length of some of the older films chronicled here, that is huge and Attenborough no doubt had his eye on then clock throughout.
For any fan of Chaplin and his works, this is a must see. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Chaplin is razor sharp and while not always looking like Chaplin, his mannerisms have been captured perfectly. Anthony Hopkins also stars as a fictional biographer finalising his book by asking an ancient Chaplin to fill in some blanks in his research. This works effectively to direct the film into the most important areas of Chaplin’s life and Hopkins is, of course, perfect. As a further touch, Attenborough directs Geraldine Chaplin playing her own grandmother in Charlie’s mother. This she does brilliantly too, capturing the dual essences of insanity and rationality of the family matriarch. Attenborough always makes a great film regardless of its content, and here he has created a fitting and stirring tribute to Chaplin and his comedic gift to the world.