CAST: Pearl Mackie, Jeff Rawle, Paul Ryan, Anne Rosenfeld, Dominic Marsh
RUNNING TIME: 114 mins
BASICALLY…: A look at the private and controversial life of silent movie star Charlie Chaplin…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Before the Beatles, before Leonardo DiCaprio, and well before whichever celebrity you may worship unconditionally, there was Charlie Chaplin. The silent movie star, known the world over for his “Tramp” persona, was renowned for his then-unique comedic skills, and for being a lovable, affectionate clown that defied all known barriers to appeal universally. But, as this new documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney attempts to discover, “who is the real Charlie Chaplin?”
The answer, surprisingly enough, isn’t that simple. The Real Charlie Chaplin largely adopts the form of a video essay to explore the life and times of the original movie idol, always with that central question on its mind as, through a mixture of archival footage and old recordings – some of which are re-enacted on-screen by actors lip-synching to the actual words – as well as soft and comforting narration by former Doctor Who star Pearl Mackie, the filmmakers try to analyse the man behind the moustache, cane, baggy trousers etc. Most of the time, despite sticking to a reasonably conventional structure, it draws considerable attention to a number of interesting anecdotes surrounding his fame, his legacy, and his contemporary influences, and does so with a playful style that guarantees your attention is held throughout.
Middleton and Spinney bring over a lot of stylistic tools from their previous documentary Notes on Blindness, including sequences that see actors portraying actual audio through lip-synching; this comes into play as we see a physical re-enactment of an audible interview with Effie Wisdom, who knew Chaplin as he grew up in poverty on a backwater London street, and also snippets of a rare interview Chaplin gave to Life magazine in 1966. These moments, aside from being re-enacted near flawlessly by the on-screen actors, serve the purpose of building a more complex side to the figure, one that the film is adamant to neither condemn nor celebrate. As we get to know him better through factual pieces of information and aforementioned interviews, we begin to identify a much colder, emotionally detached and somewhat dictatorial person whose rampant perfectionism on set (the film dedicates an entire chunk to Chaplin’s infamous struggles with the opening scene of City Lights, which from how it is described here could easily fill up a whole movie in and of itself) and his much more questionable tastes in women – his wives were considerably younger than him, including Lita Grey whose publicised divorce from him is also a major sequence here – suggest a deeply troubled individual that thrives on adoration but cannot bring himself to deliver any himself.
The film is careful to not paint Chaplin into one single corner, covering many of his flaws with as clear-eyed and unbiased an approach as possible, and giving other sides of the argument their time in the spotlight as well. The section focused on Lita Grey’s divorce, citing cruel behaviour from the actor, is an all-too-familiar depiction of double standards in the public eye, with Grey constantly depicted as a gold-digging harlot while Chaplin’s star rises even higher as a direct result, even though it is more than evident from what we get here that there is sadly some truth to Grey’s testimony. When it comes to depicting Chaplin’s controversial stance on the growing threat of Communism, the film is quick to address that it was perhaps the ruthlessness of the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover at the time that is to blame over Chaplin’s reasonable clarifications, citing other Hollywood types that had been persecuted and blacklisted for their opinions. Even one memorable sequence which explores how Chaplin and Adolf Hitler are extraordinarily and eerily similar to one another, steps away from making too many easy comparisons and actually takes the time to dive into how Chaplin’s success subconsciously and unintentionally boosted Hitler’s profile (hint: the moustache doesn’t help). It is as fair and evenly balanced a documentary as possible, neither condoning some of his less admirable qualities nor outright calling for this person to become the latest target of cancel culture for the same reasons, and the filmmakers do well to not only present their findings in absorbing and intriguing fashion, but also offer new and thought-provoking insight into a figure we all thought we knew inside and out.
Admittedly, Chaplin enthusiasts may find little here that is substantially new, with some parts in particular feeling less fresh than even Richard Attenborough’s epic but overstuffed biopic Chaplin, but The Real Charlie Chaplin isn’t exactly interested in bringing new things to the table, but rather examining what we already have to determine who, indeed, the real Charlie Chaplin is. The answers might be vague, or at worst inconclusive, but at least the effort is there in the filmmaking to at least give the world some kind of new spin on a universal icon.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Real Charlie Chaplin adopts a playful and informative video essay template to explore the true identity of the Hollywood icon, which often produces some intriguing and thought-provoking results, though dedicated enthusiasts may find little that is new being brought to the table.