Downey Reaches a New High with Charlie
Bio-pics can often be one of the most disappointing genres when it comes to movies, either the story isn't that interesting unless you know them or the director has treated the storyline too commercially ignoring reality for a more fairytale feel often over sanitizing the persons life as to not offend anyone. Thankfully "Chaplin" is different as although there is a certain amount of poetic licence taken in adapting the story into a bio-pic the story of Chaplin's life is indeed interesting and jam packed with events, loves and losses which makes it very entertaining.
"Chaplin" is Sir Richard Attenborough's epic dramatisation of the life of Charlie Chaplin covering both the highs and lows of his life. Presented in the form of a narrative by an elderly Chaplin to his biographer, the bio-pic covers everything from his penniless childhood, his days in vaudeville and the Hollywood success which lead to his world wide fame before he was banished from the United States for suspected political allegiances.
The way the story of Chaplin's life is told is done in quite an original way with Chaplin, played by Robert Downey Jr., actually narrating his life story to his biography George Hayden played by Anthony Hopkins. This means that the movie actually flits between Chaplin in his old age in Switzerland and to his past covering everything from his childhood through to his later years. It also means that the movie is near enough broken up into various chapters as Hayden regularly interjects with questions about uncovered areas such as his issues with women as well the mental breakdown of his mother. By doing this director Richard Attenborough has cleverly managed to cram so much into "Chaplin" with out it coming across as over whelming.
What is noticeable is that at nearly 150 minutes long you still feel that at the end of "Chaplin" there is so much more to know about the great entertainer and that the movie has barely scratched the surface of his packed and eventful life. This is not a criticism of the movie as it is perfectly paced and delivers the crucial elements of Chaplin's life in such a way that they are easily digestible. But as with any Hollywood icon you always feel there is so much more to know, such as how his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks came about as well as his relationship with his numerous children. "Chaplin" is the sort of movie which sets alight your interest in someone and causes you to want find out more, which is something very few movies manage.
As performances go Robert Downey Jr. makes this movie completely believable. I've seen a few of Chaplin's movies and have to say Downey becomes the comic genius especially in the scenes where he is making those iconic movies. Whether or not his portrayal of the star in his private life and later years is accurate I cannot say but it is a hugely entertaining performance which captures your attention right from his first scenes. You get a strange sense that Downey was in fact a huge fan of Chaplin's before he starred in the movie as his performance feels unforced and natural. My only criticism, and this is not so much of Downey, but the effects which show Chaplin in later years detract slightly from his performance but not to the extent that it actually spoils the movie.
Whilst Downey obviously takes the majority of the screen time, there are numerous supporting performances which help make "Chaplin" feel far more rounded. The early scenes which focus on Chaplin's childhood feature great performances from Hugh Downer & Thomas Bradford playing the young comic genius. But it is later on in the movie where the supporting cast becomes more prominent with Dan Ackroyd playing Mack Sennet who gave Chaplin his first break on the big screen and also John Thaw who stars as Fred Karno who actually managed Chaplin's stage career before he went to American and made movies. But the real big supporting performance comes from Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks who like Downey plays the character so naturally it feels like your not watching an actor going though the paces but the actual star himself.
When it comes to the supporting ladies in "Chaplin" there are a fair few thanks to Chaplin's numerous romances and marriages. Many of these supporting ladies including Maria Pitillo, Milla Jovovich, Deborah Moore, Diane Lane and Nancy Travis get limited screen time but each one adds something special to the movie, making each of their roles pivotal to the story. But the one supporting lady who does get some decent screen time is Moira Kelly who not only plays Chaplin's first real love Hetty Kelly but also his final love Oona O'Neill Chaplin. It's rather strange to think of one leading lady actually playing two pivotal characters in the one movie but it works because of the way Chaplin's life panned out. Kelly does a good job of making her performance stand out rather than fading into the background like many of the characters do in the movie.
Plus of course it's hard not to mention that amongst the various stars who appear in the movie which also includes James Woods, Marisa Tomei, Penelope Ann Miller, Kevin Dunn and David Duchovny there is also Chaplin's own daughter Geraldine Chaplin who gets to play her own grandmother Hannah.
What this all boils down to is that as bio-pics go "Chaplin" is one of my favourites not just because the focus of attention is on one of the greatest comic talents of all time but the fact that it draws you into the life of the "Little Tramp" giving you a look at his troubled life. It's also the fact that it is remarkably entertaining delivering both comedy and drama in equal well balanced measures making it not feel dry and unattached like some bio-pics can be. Even though I feel that there was a lot not covered in the movie, and at nearly 150 minutes I am glad of this, it does make you want to learn more about Chaplin's life.