Synopsis & Analysis
Admittedly, like most film biographies, Chaplin skims across the major events of its protagonist's life and rarely allows the viewer to delve into the depths of that man's heart. Moreover, Attenborough's attempts to structure the events he has selected for inclusion in his work, like those of most directors who have made such films, fail to provide his movie's narrative with much of a trajectory. In fact, the devices the director employs generally feel contrived. Chaplin's concern for the working man, for instance, is repeatedly made clear and the affects of such feelings are revealed, but always in a clumsy way. Thus, when Chaplin emerges from a cinema and sees a group of unemployed men begging, he is reminded of the plight of the modern worker and decides to make Modern Times. Such sympathies, which are expressed at opportune points throughout the film, also incur the displeasure of J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), who subsequently keeps an eye on the comedian over many years, all the while waiting for an opportunity to act against him. Suffice it to say, this man's animosity for the hero is frequently used to insert drama into the film.
Perhaps Chaplin's most unsuccessful element is, however, the framing story Attenborough has come up with, in which a writer, George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins), interviews the elderly Chaplin about the unfinished autobiography the latter has written and draws out from the comedian details about his life that he has not revealed in his manuscript. As the writer coaxes out these secrets, the director shows sequences depicting the incidents being discussed. Not only is this gimmick forced, but it is also entirely unnecessary and really should have been entirely excised from the film.
Fortunately, the scenes presenting events from Chaplin's life are often genuinely evocative of the times in which they are set and are, consequently, enjoyable. As ham-handed as Attenborough can be, he is skilful at conjuring up these periods. The viewer is thus likely to be entertained by the sequences revealing the rowdy world of English music halls, the crude efforts of America's first film makers, and the vibrant society of 1920s Hollywood.
What is more, some of the characters who appear in these different stages of Chaplin's life give these a real colorfulness. Some, admittedly, are forgettable or undeveloped, including all of Chaplin's underaged wives, but others, such as the exuberant early studio boss, Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), the good-natured and flamboyant Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline), and the conniving, spiteful Mary Pickford (Maria Pitillo), are at once fun to watch and engaging.
Finally, I should add that the film is consistently well acted. Downey, in particular, is a joy as the eponymous protagonist. Not only does he successfully mimic the mannerisms and appearance of the real man, but he actually suffuses his portrayal with a sense of authenticity. As a result, instead of merely creating a parody, Downey permits the moviegoer to forget that he is not actually watching Chaplin himself.
Even if it never rises above the ordinary, Chaplin is an entertaining film that is likely to retain the viewer's interest throughout its duration.
Review by Keith Allen
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