Like a stone skipping across the top of a deep, turbulent sea, “Chaplin” runs through the dramatic highs and lows in the life of the screen’s foremost comic genius without much stirring the waters. Telling the entire story of Charles Chaplin’s 88 years was probably a hopeless goal for a feature-length film, but Richard Attenborough’s latest epic biopic does offer the saving grace of a truly remarkable central performance by Robert Downey Jr. and some lovely moments along the way. TriStar release would need top reviews to help put it on the map, and their unlikelihood will make it hard to build mainstream audience interest in this difficult man.
Working within a running time of less than 2 1/2 hours, Attenborough attempts to relate the whole of Chaplin’s exceedingly eventful life–his impoverished childhood, quick rise to the top in movies, troubles with wives, young girls and the law, banishment from the U.S. and eventual return to Hollywood in triumph.
Thematically, the filmmakers attempt to pinpoint the real life origins of some of his comic motifs, and plausibly argue that the source of his leftish political sympathies and anti-authoritarian attitudes in his films lay in painful personal experience.
The problem is that the life was just too rich and provides too much material to be adequately dealt with in the allotted time.
Attenborough and his three eminent screenwriters haven’t managed to find a proper dramatic focus or structure, so that after the picture’s relatively satisfying first third, the film bolts along devoting a few minutes to each woman, motion picture or legal skirmish that presents itself.
Arguably, then, “Chaplin” should have been a miniseries or, as a feature film , might have profitably limited itself to the silent period, ending, perhaps, with “City Lights” and Chaplin at the peak of his career. This would have allowed what works best here — the re-creation of silent film production, the development of Chaplin’s characterizations, his unique use of total control over his own work–to be played out at greater length.
Much of the film’s first hour or so works surprisingly well. Born into the squalor of the slums in late Victorian London, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney were raised by a mother they would later have to institutionalize, and in a novel casting stroke, Geraldine Chaplin strongly etches her own grandmother’s maternal love and incipient madness.
The beginnings of the teenage Chaplin’s talent for tumbling and clowning are charmingly illustrated, and his first love, the girl he never forgot, Hetty Kelly (Moira Kelly), is appealingly presented.
Things get even better when Chaplin arrives in Hollywood in 1913 and, at a studio in the middle of an orange grove, breaks in with Mack Sennett.
The creation of the Little Tramp character is offered in both its mythical and mundanely truthful versions, and a prolonged episode in which Chaplin begins feeling his oats as the Tramp on camera is a total success.
Overwhelmingly responsible for this is Downey’s dead-on impersonation of Chaplin.
Physically, he looks remarkably like the man he’s portraying, and when he starts moving, both in and out of the Tramp character, it practically seems as if Chaplin has been brought back to life.
One would have thought that Chaplin, who had the talents of a great dancer, mime and athlete as well as an actor-comic, was inimitable, but Downey proves otherwise.
Even his vocal progression, from cockney drawl to the careful enunciation of his later years, seems impeccable.
Ultimately, the proof of how convincing Downey is rests in the fact that Attenborough is able to cut actual footage from Chaplin films into his narrative with no adjustment necessary between the real and reel figures.
But as time goes on, the story structure becomes a matter of connecting the historical dots. Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline, perfect) and Mary Pickford are brought on, but not a word is said of United Artists.
Chaplin offends J. Edgar Hoover at a dinner party, and the FBI chief hounds him forever after.
Wives and girls come and go, sometimes causing Chaplin problems but never sticking around long enough to make a lasting impression, and the political climate becomes increasingly inhospitable, finally driving the British citizen into exile.
Along the way, he does make a few movies, and one memorable moment has Chaplin, in preparation for “The Great Dictator,” screening Nazi propaganda films and beginning to parody Hitler. But much of the dialogue is, by necessity, strictly expository–“I haven’t worked since ‘Modern Times.’ I’m desperate”–and even such a major film as “Monsieur Verdoux” is neglected altogether, all signs that the film has bitten off more than it can chew or digest.
For the most part, the casting and playing of supporting parts is first-rate.
Dan Aykroyd as comedy king Mack Sennett; Kelly as both Chaplin’s first love and last, Oona O’Neill; Penelope Ann Miller as his first leading lady, Edna Purviance; Paul Rhys as brother Sydney; John Thaw as music hall impresario Fred Karno; Nancy Travis as the imbalanced Joan Barry, who nearly destroys Chaplin with a paternity suit; Diane Lane, too voluptuous to be Paulette Goddard but just as saucy–all ring as true as actors can in this sort of enterprise.
Similarly, behind-the-scenes talents have contributed to a convincing portrait of both turn-of-the-century London and the golden years of Hollywood, the details of early filmmaking techniques being particularly good. Major credit here goes to production designer Stuart Craig, lenser Sven Nykvist and costume designers John Mollo and Ellen Mirojnick. John Barry’s score is a bit thick with sentiment, but nicely incorporates Chaplin compositions at times.
Attenborough’s direction of individual scenes is proficient, but the script–by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman–stands as an illustration of the pitfalls of biographical filmmaking.
It all ends, rather movingly, at the Academy Awards, with Chaplin welcomed back to the U.S. after 20 years to receive an honorary Oscar.
Downey could deservingly find himself there as a result of his work here, but the others have either already been or will have to wait until another time.