Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin. For many, he is the symbol of the silent age of film. The stiff figure in trademark hat and twirling cane comes easily to mind. But that wasn’t really Charlie Chaplin. That was a character he created called The Tramp, or often The Little Tramp. So, it would seem that Chaplin spent most of his career playing The Tramp, who in turn played many different characters on the silent screen. He was known for his subversive antics and charming stare. He became the champion of the common man, all the while becoming the first elite star in Hollywood. With his troubled life and numerous sex scandals, you would expect that Chaplin would have been the subject of a bio-pic before 1991.
The script is based on two books. One of them is Chaplin’s own autobiography. The other is David Robinson’s book Chaplin His Life And Art. You get the idea that the material is authentic enough. It doesn’t attempt to gloss over the flaws in the man’s character. While it obviously spends much of the time on his films and the things that went into them, we don’t get an over-stylized idea of Chaplin as anything less than what he was: a flawed human being like the rest of us.
The film begins with Chaplin (Downey, Jr.) telling his story to a fictionalized writer played by Anthony Hopkins. The writer is sitting down with the aged actor and going over notes for his proposed biography. He has a list of people and events he’s looking for more information on. It is this list and Hopkins’ questions that guide the narrative of the film. Throughout you’ll hear the two begin to discuss the particulars of what we’re watching unfold. It can be a bit jarring. I’m not sure I like the choice. In fact, it was a choice made only weeks before production and not originally part of the script. It’s the one and only time that Downey isn’t quite on as Chaplin. Part of the problem here is a pretty bad and obvious age makeup. Downey appears confused and not sure how to play Chaplin during these scenes. The problem is likely the result of his having less time to prepare this aspect of the performance. This awkward portrayal is certainly not evident in any other part of the film. Downey nails the actor’s movements and quirks to such an extent that you’ll find yourself questioning which one of them is performing on the silent film clips that populate the movie. These are all done by Downey to perfection.
There are quite a few other performances that deserve mention here. Kevin Kline is almost unrecognizable as himself. He plays Chaplin’s long-time friend Douglas Fairbanks. I think he was underused a bit here. The two share a kind of awkward chemistry that works for me. I can see that swashbuckling larger-than-life presence that Fairbanks certainly had on the screen. The two must have been quite opposite. Chaplin was very reserved and an introvert off-camera, while Fairbanks was just as extroverted off camera as his famous action heroes. It’s a small role, but Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s granddaughter, got to play her own grandmother on the screen. It’s one of those touches that might have gone unnoticed by most viewers, but it added that one last subtle nod of authenticity for me. Kevin Dunn has a pretty good go as J. Edgar Hoover, who apparently had a bug for Chaplin for most of his stay in the United States. Dan Aykroyd does a nice turn as Mack Sennett, who gave Chaplin his start in films. Along for the ride is Fox Mulder himself. David Duchovny plays Rollie, Chaplin’s faithful cameraman for years.
It’s a nicely-played period piece that loses momentum because of that narration. There is also a lovely score by John Barry that sounds wonderful but often doesn’t fit. It’s a sweeping epic sound that never really works with what we’re seeing on the screen. So, yeah, the film has a few flaws, and it never did really score with audiences. It’s surprising to find that the film tanked at the box office. It made less that $10 million. It lasted less than three weeks in first run. That was over the Christmas holiday. The film is worth a rental if only to see a brilliant performance by Downey.
Chaplin is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t hold up in this high-definition image presentation. The picture remains soft and very poorly defined at times. I guess some of this can be blamed on the period-piece style, but I suspect little time was spent on the transfer. Colors break through once in a while, but the film lacks any kind of texture or substance. I had once thought the film was entirely in black and white, and it appears as though it was shot with that intention. Perhaps it was. I think it might have looked better had they stuck with that idea.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is just as weak. This is one of those audio presentations that won’t maintain a solid volume level. You’ll have to ride the volume on your amp. It’s very annoying. The score sounds quite dynamic at times, but the rest of the film falls flat and muddy. Don’t bother turning on your sub. They’ve been forgotten by this sound design.
Strolling Into The Sunset: (7:30) HD This one focuses on Downey’s performance.
Chaplin The Hero: (6:02) HD This is a continuation of the first with the same participants, including Charlie’s son Michael. It focuses on Chaplin and his films.
The Most Famous Man In The World: (5:23) HD This time the same group talks about how fame affected the actor.
All At Sea – Chaplin Home Movies: (2:27) Footage of Chaplin sailing.
In one of the interviews director Richard Attenborough talks candidly about the film’s flaws. He expresses a wish to be able to do the film over. Now, that’s something I’d love to see. Of course, it’s totally impossible. This film could have been a lot better and was still better than it had any right to be. Today Downey has redefined himself and is doing a pretty good job of it. I wonder how much of his success today he might owe to the work he put into Chaplin. It’s an interesting question that you can’t fail to ask yourself if you decide to sit a spell with this movie. This movie attempts to help you to discover who Chaplin was off camera. But, maybe that’s the problem. Chaplin might have been 100% on the nose when he said, “If you want to understand me, watch my movies.”