Though not the most original of ideas, this 1992 biopic of Charles Spencer Chaplin sees Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr) recounting his life to a biographer (Anthony Hopkins) from his last home in Switzerland. It follows his childhood success in Music Hall to his move to America and his ultimate life changing summons from Mack Sennett to star in “movies”. It follows the trials and tribulations of his young success (67/81 films were made before his 30th birthday) and the effects this would have on his personal life (he was married four times and had 11 children) including the close bond he had with his brother Sydney. It also touches on his mothers mental health problems. Then from his reluctant transfer to the “talkies” in his seminal work “The Great Dictator”, the story continues through the forties and fifties with accusations of communism in the witch hunt that was the McCarthy era. It leads to his exile of 20 years from America until he returns briefly for an honorary Academy award in 1972.
Directed by Richard Attenborough, this film about a boy from humble London working class background making it to what we know today as the bright lights of Hollywood (though in those days they used daylight to film in) couldn’t be in better hands. Great cinematography too from Sven Nykvist and beautiful set decoration almost satisfy that fantasy all film buffs must have of getting in a time machine and returning to the birth of Hollywood – only unlike The Artist, it’s in glorious colour. My favourite shots were the newly built studios, shiny white buildings with houses built for each VIP round a large square of neatly trimmed lawn. Proper California buzz.
The film is often this romantic gush of what we dream Hollywood to be and is even related through some of Attenboroughs own silent comedy. His account of the difficulties encountered by Chaplin in editing The Kid (fearing his estranged wife would claim half the film in divorce proceedings) is displayed with sped up slapstick humour. There are more sober moments in the film however including a scene in a London pub where he is heckled and harassed by members of the public for being a war dodger.
With such a rich life as source material it was never going to be an easy task to whittle it down to 2 hours 20 mins. But credit to David Robinson and Diana Hawkins who did just that and also the screenplay writers William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and the great William Goldman. Despite a dodgy London accent to begin with, you quickly warm to Downey Jr’s excellent performance.
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