Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: "Chaplin"

I must make it known from the outset that I have a weakness for films about film making. "Chaplin" (1992)is one of these. As the title suggests, it is the life story of Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the most famous star of the silent film era. 
We begin, naturally, at the beginning. Chaplin is a small child living in London's East End in the 1890's, enduring quite the Dickensian existence. His single mother just barely supports him and his older brother with vaudeville work, although it quickly becomes clear that young Charlie is far more talented in this arena than his she. Fast forward several years, and Charlie is making a name for himself on the London vaudeville stage after a painful episode wherein he must commit his mother to an insane asylum. Chaplin is quickly noticed by a producer from Hollywood, and he is invited to California. It is at a small movie studio where he discovers the fledgling form of magic that is film making. 
Far and away the best aspect of "Chaplin" is Robert Downey Jr.'s immersive and charismatic performance as the title character. His cockney accent is spot on (as far as this American can tell), and he perfectly captures Chaplin's onscreen persona. He is truly The Tramp incarnate. 
The film is competently, if not inspirationally, directed by Lord Richard Attenborough, who was also responsible for the biopic "Gandhi, but most people will know him as the Dinosaur entrepreneur in "Jurassic Park". Lord Attenborough's real strength as a director seems to be coaxing authentic yet entertaining performances from his actors, a talent that is on full display here. 
As with many biopics, especially those that cover the entire breadth of a person's life, "Chaplin" lacks a real clean focus, other than, of course, Chaplin's life. There are certain threads that weave throughout the picture, such as his affairs with and marriages to much younger women, and J. Edgar Hoover's quest to prove Chaplin to be a communist. The film is made up of a number of quite insightful and entertaining moments (not the least of which involve Chaplin on the sets of his films), but it never really adds up to anything in the end. I speak of the cinematic sense of an end, in that the conclusion of the film deposits us somewhere we were not when the thing began. 
There is a framing gimmick that all these scenes are couched within, which takes the form of an elderly Charlie Chaplin revising his memoirs with his editor. This only serves to take us out of the film, but it endeared me to the director somewhat when I discovered that this gimmick and the related ending were foisted upon him at the last minute by the backers. 
I recommend "Chaplin" to fan's of: biopics, Robert Downey Jr., period pieces, or anyone with an interest in film making and/or film history. Perhaps the reason I have a special affinity for films about film making, especially those concerned with the start of the industry, is that they have as their subject the very thing to which they owe their existence. 

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