Director: Richard Attenborough
Stars: Robert Downey Jr. Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Rhys
Plot: Charlie Chaplin became one of the most iconic actors and filmmakers of the 20th Century, but his life was not without its ups and downs.
Making a biographical film about someone like Charlie Chaplin requires a great deal of thought into what to depict and how to portray the real-life personality. Biopics such as The Iron Lady are seen by many as an example of how a film can shed an overly sympathetic light on a controversial character, such as the late Margaret Thatcher. Skimming over perhaps the less divisive periods of her tenure to concentrate on the frail, old woman played by Meryl Streep could be seen as blatant sugar-coating. Chaplin is rather more thorough in its appraisal of Charlie – while we get to see how his career took off, there is also an opportunity to get to know his character, warts and all.
During the 1960s whilst living in Switzerland, an elderly Charlie Chaplin (Downey Jr.) recounts his life to George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins), the author of his autobiography. We flashback to January 1894, where a 4-year-old Charlie accompanies his mother Hannah (Chaplin) to her final performance at an Army theatre named The Canteen in Aldershot, where her voice fails and she is booed off. Charlie goes out on the stage and finishes the song, receiving the adulation of the audience. However, not long after, Hannah becomes increasingly mentally ill and Charlie and his brother Sydney (Rhys) have no option but to send her to Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum. Charlie then attempts to launch a career in the music halls of London and is noticed by Fred Karno (John Thaw), who gives him his first big break.
Charlie receives an invitation from Hollywood film producer Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) to star in his latest movie. Upon arriving at the film set, Charlie has to perform a quick audition as a drunkard to win over Sennett and give him a job. After a successful debut in which he impressed his new employers, Charlie quickly goes about making a name for himself as one of the most famous names in the world, aided and abetted by Sydney who acts as his manager. Forming his own production company, Charlie makes himself autonomous and no longer held at the whim of film producers. However, the onset of the First World War places Charlie under scrutiny back home in England, where his popularity suffers a blow due to his absence from the frontline. Meanwhile, he is suspected by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of being a communist and is excluded from America whilst on a visit to Europe.
Charlie Chaplin is arguably one of the most difficult people to make a biographical film about, because there was so much going on both in his life and in the world at the time. Trying to cram as much as possible into Chaplin is therefore no mean feat, as it manages to include the many setbacks in his life, the queue of women at his door and the impact that his films had on himself as a person and the influence on global events as a whole. If you don’t really know much about the early tragedy that beset Charlie Chaplin, then there is a great deal that will surprise you, such as the large amount of time that he spent in England before actually moving to America and making his fortune, the relationship with his brother and the attention that he received from Hoover as a suspected Communist. Much of the source material is taken from Chaplin’s own words, My Autobiography, which gives the screenplay an authenticity despite a few liberties such as the character of George Hayden who is completely fictional but who has been placed in as a foil for Chaplin to share his memories during his twilight years in Switzerland. There is perhaps a tendency throughout to portray Chaplin as a tortured genius, but the love for silent cinema and the tumultuous period of history as the backdrop are both conveyed very well indeed.
Robert Downey Jr. is an example of absolutely spot-on casting. Not only is he at ease playing Charlie during his formative years, but his portrayal of Chaplin in later life is reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane – that rare ability to be able to incorporate the naivety and arrogance of youth in one flashback and then revert to playing a wistful, old man full of longing in the next. Downey Jr. is nothing short of extraordinary and, although he undeservedly lost out to Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman at the Academy Awards in 1993, he is worth the entrance fee alone. Dan Aykroyd revels in his role as Mack Sennett and Paul Rhys is impressive as Charlie’s brother Sydney. The all-star cast doesn’t stop there, however. There is a wealth of talent in even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, including Marisa Tomei, John Thaw, Milla Jovovich (proving she can act before she started making the abhorrent Resident Evil films), Kevin Dunn, James Woods and David Duchovny. Richard Attenborough’s direction is excellent. managing to really bring the golden age of Hollywood to life and is aided by a cracking script by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, which rarely stops for the sake of padding, even in a film that is pushing two and a half hours.
Chaplin has been criticised for trying to cover too much ground and for spreading Charlie Chaplin’s life story far too thinly, but considering that there were 88 years to cover, you’ll have to agree it’s a terrific effort. The primary job of a biography is to shed light on aspects of a famous person’s life that come as a surprise – Chaplin does this and more, but also manages to stay on the right side of sentimentality, even when Downey Jr. looks up at a montage of Chaplin’s work and the screen fades to black.