Chaplin (United Kingdom, 1992)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Chaplin is Sir Richard Attenborough's account of the life and times of film great Charlie Chaplin. The story picks up in 1894, when Charlie is five, and lasts until 1972, five years before his death in 1977. Along the way, Attenborough gives us glimpses of Hollywood in its infancy, the filmmaking process, and McCarthyism. Above all, however, Chaplin shows the life - both on and off-screen - of a motion picture pioneer.

It's easy to pick out the single major flaw of Chaplin. The narrative is too ambitious. Attempting to condense seventy-eight years into one-hundred and forty-four minutes is a Herculean task that defeats a director of even Richard Attenborough's accomplishments. There's too much material, and, because the story is so rich, characters and events go whizzing by at dizzying speeds. Chaplin becomes a series of scenes and images rather than a cohesive whole.

Robert Downey Jr. does a highly credible Chaplin. Not only does he look like the comic, but he has mastered the physical mannerisms so necessary to the role. Downey said that copying "The Tramp" (Chaplin's best-known on-screen personae) was his biggest challenge; it is also his most impressive accomplishment. In fact, the actor so perfectly captures his character that clips of the actual Chaplin can be used in the movie without ruining the illusion.

Aside from Chaplin, there is little attempt at character depth. Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline, most recently of Consenting Adults), Sydney Chaplin (Paul Rhys), and Oona Chaplin (Moira Kelly, of The Cutting Edge) are fleshed out a little, but none of them could be considered three-dimensional. It certainly isn't the actors' faults. Their characters have such limited screen time that it's difficult to do more than introduce them. Choosing Geraldine Chaplin to play Charlie's mother Hannah is a case of inspired casting. Aside from Downey, she gives the most convincing portrayal.

Attenborough, with a flair for the subtle, chose Moira Kelly for a double role -- Hetty Kelly, the lost love of Charlie's youth, and Oona, with whom he had his only successful marriage. Kelly has trouble with the early role -- or, more specifically, with Hetty's accent -- but she does a fine job as Oona. The resemblance between the two characters is never commented upon, so it's up to the viewer to make the connection. Unfortunately, this is another instance where the script fails. Since Hetty is only briefly introduced, it's hard to envision her as one of the forces that drives Chaplin's life, and even harder to understand how he is able to set aside her memory through Oona.

Indeed, emotional moments are few and far between in Chaplin. The only scene of any genuine power comes in the closing moments. Aside from that, watching the movie is much like perusing a history textbook -- informative and interesting, but too dry. Fortunately, Chaplin is well-paced and snappily-plotted, so it never becomes tedious. In an early scene, Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) notes that Chaplin's first film appearance is on the cutting room floor -- not a good place to be. One wonders how much of this picture was snipped.

As expected from an Attenborough film, Chaplin boasts strong production values. The editing and camerawork are smooth. There's a wonderful "life imitates art" scene where Chaplin is being chased by the police, and this couldn't have been better composed. The aging effects are some of the best I've seen. When Chaplin is old, he looks like he's being played by an elderly actor, not Robert Downey Jr. under a mountain of makeup. Veteran composer John Barry's score, while perhaps too reminiscent of his Dances with Wolves music, is evocative. All-in-all, however, even though Chaplin is fitfully entertaining, it fails to touch enough emotional chords to make it of more than passing interest.

Chaplin (United Kingdom, 1992)

Run Time: 2:24
U.S. Release Date: 1993-01-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1