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Non-Review Review: Chaplin

I caught Chaplin for the first time last night on Sky Anytime. I was quite impressed for a film I’d heard next to nothing about – always a bad sign.

I quite enjoyed it. As much a love letter to the ghost of Hollywood past as to its lead character, it managed to successfully evoke the slow dwindling of the Hollywood dream. Director Richard Attenborough manages a number of inspired touches (my favourite being the scene where Charlie theatrically claims that The Tramp called out to him (the first hat he tried on, the cane flew to his hand), only to be called out by his editor, leading to the much more mundane days of searching for props and the character’s voice). You almost believe you’re there in the golden age of Hollywood, thanks to costume and set design, as well as staging. In particular, the film works well emulating famous bits of Chaplin schtick (an extended sequence where they flee his wife’s lawyers while editting the film, playing with a volleyball so as to remind viewers of The Great Dictator). It realises that there’s more to Charlie than the life that he lived, and manages to recreate an air of magical non-realism around him. Somehow I imagine his life was much more mundane, but it feels good to imagine it wasn’t.

While we’re on the strengths of the film, three words: Robert Downey Jnr. He was only twenty-eight years old when he played the role, but the audience could be forgiven for being unsure – the film traverses Charlie’s life and, while the later makeup mighty be a bit ropey by today’s standards, it ages Downey relatively well through the bulk of the film. It’s a difficult performance, but one that works. As imagined by Downey, Chaplin is a flawed human being. Not so tragically flawed as the more recent Oscar-nominated performances in recent biopictures (Johnny Cash or Ray Charles are easier to sympathise with), in that he is openly condescending and bitchy about the people close to him, without ever seeming to need to apologise (check out his blithe summary of “America’s Sweetheart”). On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel proud of a man so unwilling to compromise his humanism, even when he knows it will land him in hot water.

It’s to Downey’s credit we neither love nor hate the man, but feel a little like we understand him. It’s also to the performer’s credit that his schtick embodies Chaplin so well that Attenborough can play clips of the man himself (who plays himself on celluloid, save a recreation of the finale of The Great Dictator where Downey steps in) without shattering the illusion.

The rest of the performances are hit-or-miss. Very few supporting characters get screentime, so the really great actors make their mark with that time. Traditionally underrated players, like Dan Ackroyd, Kevin Kline and Diane Lane, in particular make the most of small roles. Veteran performers like James Woods and Marisa Tomei seem criminally underused. The parade of women in Charlie’s life seem like little more than extended cameos, despite being played by Penelope Ann-Miller, Milla Jovovich and Moira Kelly among others. At this point I should reflect that Moira Kelly’s Oirish accent is terrible. It’s painful to hear, but it’s not there for long and is worth soldering through.

There are the usual complaints about biopics to be made here. It does lack focus and suffers from confused priorities. Does Charlie’s sex life deserve the attention is receives at the expense of his career? Is the handling of his politics deep enough, or is it lost amid the tragedy of Douglas Fairbanks? The truth is that – at least in films of this scale – it’s nearly impossible to strike a balance. This film lands squarely in the middle of the pile – landing with W. or Beyond The Sea rather than Nixon or Walk the Line – but is elevated slightly be those inspired director’s touches, a genuine love for the material and a fantastic leading performance.

Call this one a cautious recommendation, though I’m always biased for a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood.

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Chaplin is directed by Richard Attenborough (Ghandi), based on the life of film maker and comedian Charlie Chaplin. It stars Robert Downey Jnr. (Iron Man, Tropic Thunder) and a huge ensemble cast featuring Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda, The Pink Panther), Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Fracture), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler), Dan Ackroyd (Ghostbusters, Evolution), Diane Lane (Nights in Rhodesia), Penelope Ann-Miller (Carlito’s Way), Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil, UltraViolet), James Woods (Videodrome, Nixon) and David Duchovney (The X-Files, Californication). It was released in the US on 8th January 1993, but was actually released earlier in the UK and Ireland on 18th December 1992.

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