The Real Charlie Chaplin – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Directors – Peter Middleton, James Spinney
Writers – Oliver Kindeberg, Peter Middleton, James Spinney
Stars – Pearl Mackie, Jeff Rawle, Paul Ryan
This is a simply wonderful documentary film, if a little long, but fully deserving of your attention on so many many levels. Ostensibly a biography of one of the great screen actors whose tramp persona is still recognised worldwide. The merest silhouette outline, with baggy trousers, floppy shoes, cane and small bowler hat, automatically identify the subject, even before considering the iconic moustache.
Chaplin was born in the Lambeth (London) slums, he later escaped poverty through the London music halls to rapid Hollywood stardom, global recognition and delirious adulation. Later followed a dramatic barring from the USA, to essentially what amounted to a cultural and domestic exile in Switzerland. His story is well known and dramatic by any stretch, but this film packs in so much more, giving us psychology, history, politics, art and more. On the first level are the staggering marshalling of historic footage, film stock, newsreel, photographs, interviews and previously unheard interviews. From a purely historical and archival point of view, this in itself is something thrilling, but then it is packed with so many themes and perspectives, indeed each underlying narrative is worthy of a film or a documentary in itself. An underlying theme highlights the fragile and obsessive nature of genius, with a creative fastidiousness bordering on mania.
Another key theme is the difficulty of knowing the real person. He was Charlie Chaplin and known everywhere, but of course, what people knew and adored was just a persona assumed for the screen by a gifted comedian and actor. Who was the real man? This is a not uncommon challenge for many actors – can we separate Rowan Atkinson from Mr Bean, Peter Sellers from Inspector Clouseau or indeed closer to home Pauline McLynn from Mrs Doyle. How can we reconcile the screen image with the reality of an individual?
Chaplin’s shockingly impoverished childhood in the Lambeth slums influenced his film sets for scenes of poverty. The despair of being separated from his beloved mother informed his tearful, heart-wrenching imagery in films such as The Kid (1921). His screen silence, exaggerated physical and facial gestures, enhanced the international appeal – he could be understood everywhere just by a glance or a hand movement. Then there was the upheaval of the talkies with new acting styles and how this undermined his dominance of the screen. There is a fascinating account of parallels with Adolf Hitler – same age, poverty, adoration of their mothers, artistic needy temperaments expecting adoration and adulation – obviously for different ends but fascinating nonetheless. Then there is his personal life – his marriages, his fondness for much…much younger women and even some home-movie footage of visits to Waterville in Kerry. There is much to enjoy and much to consider in a wonderful celebration of a key figure in the history of cinema.