Richard Attenborough returns to the biopic, this time charting the life of silent comedy star Charlie Chaplin.
Without a doubt the best thing about this film is Robert Downey Jr’s performance. While he has consistently delivered during his resurgence in the last decade, he’s also consistently played versions of himself; so much so that it’s easy to forget his beginnings as a character actor.
Here he perfects Chaplin’s unique psychicality, without which the film would have been totally unconvincing. But he also delivers on both a cockney and more plummy, RP accent for Chaplin’s early and later life. The film benefits from superb direction at the hand of Richard Attenborough, showing the same attention to detail that brought Gandhi back to life.
Where the film falls down is with the supporting characters, and the aspects of the picture that deal with his personal life. This is partly just a consequence of the source material – when someone had three wives it’s difficult to make them all into well-rounded characters as they enter and leave the film. But the screenplay feels like it’s lacking a little something to help us relate to other characters in the film, in spite of a cast packed full of big names and Chaplin’s real-life daughter Geraldine, playing his mother.
It also suffers from a durgy score by John Barry, with the exception of the up-beat silent comedy music which is used sporadically. Some of the most enjoyable scenes show Hollywood’s infancy, when studios neighboured farmland, cutting a movie together involved scissors and studios barely had enough employees to fill a broom cupboard. This early era of Hollywood has the feeling of the Old West, a pioneering spirit, a sense of lawlessness, and the prospect of making very large sums of money.
Like Gandhi it shows a great deal of respect for events – it’s based on two biographies of Chaplin and makes a point of identifying the fictionalised elements before the end credits roll. However it doesn’t treat its subject with the same reverence.
Chaplin is likeable for his instinctive comedic ability, but is not shown to be a jaw-dropping genius, more a naturally able humourist who was in the right place at the right time and made shrewd business moves. This is the right tone to strike, particularly given some of the less savoury aspects of Chaplin’s personal life.
The film is worth watching for Downey Jr’s performance and Attenborough’s excellent direction, and is an interesting history of a screen legend. So, in the words of the great Charlie Chaplin, ” “.