I began this film knowing that it should be good, coming from the direction of Richard Attenborough, a love note to the early days of film, focusing on the UK’s first international stars of first vaudeville and very soon after screen during the silent era. Chaplin (1992) began some what with a clunky beginning for me, after a now dated beginning as we see the man himself played by Robert Downey Jr. taking off his make-up the bare all for the biopic. Which we find is told in fictional retrospect between the aged star and fictional biographer George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) whose job it seems is to tease more out of the actor/director/comic who now is living in Switzerland with his fourth wife. Probably acting as a way in for a modern audience who have little idea of Chaplin’s private life which would form the basis for this film. I knew somewhat of his past but very little if I’m honest. I vaguely remember seeing his silent films as a kid early in the mornings, wondering more what happened to the sound than anything, yet somehow I remained engaged throughout. The first and only so far (shamefully) that I have seen is Modern Times (1936) during a history lesson.
Once I got over the clunky unsure beginning complete with star wipes etc which feel more at home in Star Wars I realised it was all part of the aesthetic of the early films, still finding their feet and defining their language that we have come to love today. What makes this film have real credibility is the involvement of Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine Chaplin playing her own grandmother, a mark of a strong actress who can recreate her own families history on-screen. It brings another layer of authenticity to the film, that relies mostly on a young Downey Jr. who from the trailer doesn’t do him any favours, mostly a cockney accent. What we have in the film is a decent attempt at the accent. He is a good fit for the role which I really can’t see being played by anyone else, he just embodies him completely, allowing us to follow Chaplin, not realising its Downey Jr. playing him.
Chaplin delivers what you want in a film about one of the founders of Hollywood, from his first contract with Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) the then king of comedy in film who signs him for a one year contract which allowed him to begin to really flex his creative muscles. It would be nothing without seeing both Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) and Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo) who together formed United Artists with D.W. Griffith who we don’t see. Both of them are dead-ringers for the silent film stars, which is a credit to both wardrobe and make-up on the film. No detail is left out.
With the addition of footage from Chaplin’s films, from the unknown to the later classics such as The Kid (1921) and The Great Dictator (1940) which add another layer of authenticity to the world of a bygone era of film. A chance once more to see his work, combined with his life story. His work even in this fragmented form made me laugh nearly a century later. A story that is anything but just the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Life beyond the cameras with his four wife, all far younger than him. His political views that cause him to be under surveillance by the F.B.I. that possibly leant towards communism, which were never proven. His early stance towards Nazi Germany which was not taken so seriously until the outbreak of WWII. A man ahead of his time in so many ways.
I always comeback to the flashback format of the film, however much it was based on his own autobiography and biography I am still left feeling unsure. Always bugging me; the fictional biographer teasing out more information to be told for us, when it was already in both sources that were the basis of the film. Feeling unnatural and unnecessary really, just a layer that could be removed to leave his life story to play-out. It does however lead up to the 44th Academy Awards when he is honoured with an honorary Oscar. A moment of melancholy as his past life is now celebrated, whilst he has been living in exile. To be finally be forgiven, having been a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunt which ruined so many lives in Hollywood.
Chaplin however dated it appears today, still works thanks to clever casting, every aspect of this film is near-perfect for a biopic of a film-star of Chaplin’s status. It’s respectful of him, allowing his work to shin through, whilst at the same time not shying away from his private life which lead to his final years.