Chaplin (1992) - My Rating: 8.6 / 10
Directed by Richard Attenborough and written by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes, William Goldman (based on ‘My Autobiography’ by Charlie Chaplin and ‘Chaplin - His Life and Art’ by David Robinson)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Geraldine Chaplin, Anthony Hopkins, Paul Rhys, Kevin Kline and Moira Kelly
'The tramp can't talk, the minute he talks he's dead.'
Chaplin was the God of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Salvador Dali of the silent film era. This epic biopic covers every nook and cranny of Charlie’s exceptional, and often controversial life. Chaplin is one of the most beautifully fascinating films I’ve ever seen. Richard Attenborough masterfully and insightfully documents from Charlie’s miserable, poverty stricken childhood to the birth of his strenuous creative work ethic and his increasing isolation as his celebrity status boils over to hysteria and speculation.
The pace and editing of the film whirs like one of those old fashioned film projectors; every scene flickering with a distinct magic that should be credited mostly to Robert Downey Jr’s performance and John Barry’s score. Even though there were so many moving moments, the film also payed tribute Charlie’s iconic slapstick routines, seeping into some real life events in Charlie’s life; like the scene when Charlie, Syd and Minnie are trying to escape from the police after having smuggled the footage from Charlie’s 'The Kid' to edit in a hotel room after the film got caught up in Charlie’s divorce settlements. That whole sequence was just hilarious and Downey Jr’s comic timing was so slick! It brought to light how Charlie was a master comedian of his time… even in his spare time.
"We’ll keep you under wraps until after we’ve finished cutting the film… Charlie, you’ve got your pants on back to front’
I thought the screenplay was brilliant. One critic wrote, however, that the screenplay "endeavors to cover too much ground. The life of Charlie Chaplin was so vast and varied that a film is far too restrictive a format to give it justice." I disagree, as I think this is a very personal, intimate portrait of the man with a bowler hat and toothbrush moustache, that isn’t about the events surrounding his life, its about Charlie himself - if you want to go see a gruelling, fully detailed time line of every single event in his life, watch a documentary or read his autobiography. Or in Charlie’s words; 'If you want to understand me… watch my movies'. My impression of the screenplay was that it was a beautifully fragile, sensitive film, you get that sense just from the opening sequence alone…
The opening title sequence sparks with a long shot of the legendary Little Tramp figure emerging in silhouette (the poster cover above). Its very symbolic as it starts with the an image of how Chaplin in universally perceived in black and white then dissolving into colour and filtering a beautiful forlorn atmosphere as John Barry’s score amplifies the mood projected through intense close ups, as we see Charlie pulling the layers of his costume and make up off; leaving thick smears of black eye make up running down his cheeks. Like tears. Giving a poignant, but subtle insight into Charlie’s character; he was a very melancholy, humble genius. I thought this scene set up perfectly what the film intended to do; revealing Chaplin in a very intimate way and not allowing him to be drowned by all the events surrounding his life.
The performances in Chaplin were brilliant, with an endless host of supporting cast that is too long to list, although Geraldine Chaplin’s performance is definitely worth mentioning. This film would have obviously been a very personal project for her, as she was portraying her own paternal grandmother; Hannah Chaplin in the film. She was really compelling to watch, and seemed so tragically feeble; it was so sad to watch as she gradually deteriorated into insanity. A pivotal scene in her performance I thought was when Charlie was reunited with his mother, when she comes to visit him in America; she kind of stumbles towards him and they hug and she whispers; 'I've dreamed of this moment for years' - I feel like when they exchange smiles in this scene, Downey Jr and Geraldine Chaplin seemed to brake out of character. It was such a bitter sweet moment in the film.
I thought Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Charlie was above and beyond exceptional. Not only did he posses a striking resemblance to Chaplin; he didn’t mimic Charlie’s behaviour, he embodied him and brought him back to life on screen for the first time in 52 years. He had this suave, charismatic and also humbling energy that seemed to seep and explode from every movement, gesture and line. He’d give the real Charlie a run for his money with some of the comic sequences he performed; like his audition for Mack Sennett with the match and suitcase was incredible! He also had the ability to be so gracefully emotional, it was really moving to watch, like that scene when Charlie is watching clips from his life’s works before he receives his Honorary Oscar; reflecting over all the events of his life and his creative achievements, he simply starts crying. I cried.
However, my favourite scene in the whole film was probably one of the most poignant. When the news is broken to him that his first love, Hetty Kelly had died while he was away in the US, his reaction is so achingly painful; his distraught eyes just flicker around helplessly, not saying anything. Then as he gets off the train, he is greeted by an adoring mob that swamps him, with blinding flash bulbs from cameras going off and a troop of police engulfing him, bolstering him through his worshipping fans… all he can do is smile. Robert Downey Jr’s performance accompanied by John Barry’s rendition of Chaplin’s famous composition; Smile was one of the most tragic and moving scenes I’ve ever seen in any film. I remember my Dad being really moved by this scene and pointing out to me; "See how he doesn’t know where to look there, he’s just devastated… brilliant acting".
Chaplin was such an important film for me. Watching how Charlie worked artistically and so determinedly inspired me to become a film maker. I also remember Robert Downey Jr’s performance in the scene above inspiring me to take acting seriously. Charlie Chaplin, as the Little Tramp and as a film maker has influenced me in so many different ways since I first saw this film at age 11, its very special to me.
A stunning tribute to the little man with a bowler hat, over sized shoes, toothbrush moustache and funny walk. Thank you to Richard Attenborough for making such a beautiful film. Chaplin will stay with you long after he waddles off into the distance, bamboo cane in hand, leaving behind trails of cinematic gold dust in his wake… fade to black.
'End of the day, you're not judged by what you didn't do, but what you did. I didn't change things, I just… he just cheered people up… not bad that’
Vogue Paris May 1975 by Guy Bourdin