The Real Charlie Chaplin is now showing in selected theatres and on digital.
If you were to ask me to list my all-time favourite films, I can guarantee it would house more than a few Charlie Chaplin movies. For years, The Kid, Goldrush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator and others have amazed me in their intricacy, comedic timing, characterisation, and social consciousness. However, no matter how many times I revisit these beautiful works of art, the actor, comedian, director, producer, and musician at their heart remains elusive to me. I am, of course, referring to Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr, who has long been a fascinating puzzle. After all, this is a man whose career was centred on a self-constructed character whose image merged with his own. He was a man who rose from abject poverty to become a global Hollywood icon and a man who was shunned when he finally broke his silence and dismantled the tramp who had earned him fame.
For years, Chaplin’s almost Dickensian rise to fame has fascinated me; in fact, one could argue Chaplin and Dicken’s had more than a few similarities. For example, Dicken’s would treat his first wife with disdain, just as Chaplin would treat several wives with utter contempt as his inner darkness was exposed. But, unlike Dicken’s, Chaplin’s fall from grace was due to his words and the end of his onscreen silence. So, does Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s new documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin provide us with any unique insight into the life of a comedian who was both electrifying, magnetic and yet mysterious?
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The answer to this is as complex as the man at the heart of their impressive slice of verbatim cinema. In many ways, The Real Charlie Chaplin does indeed cast new light on the private life of a complex and multi-faceted man who shunned attention outside of his films. This includes a timely re-examination of Chaplin’s treatment of the very young women who dared enter his world. These teenage girls were drawn into Chaplin’s imaginary world through his performance, only to find a dark, moody and volatile man outside of the costume.
Equally fascinating is Middleton and Spinney’s exploration of the music hall roots of Chaplin’s tramp and the personal drive and risk that led to his first onscreen performance. But, for me, The Real Charlie Chaplin is at its most assured when exploring the socio-political downfall of Chaplin and his troubled escape from the tramp who made him famous.
However, we are also left with a myriad of unanswered questions as the credits roll, as we attempt to unpick the life of a creative genius haunted by inner demons and doubt. Here I found myself questioning how mortally wounded Chaplin was by his expulsion from the United States and whether he ever really left the workhouses of Lambeth he encountered as a young teen. In truth, we may never know the answers, as Chaplin himself hid many of the jigsaw pieces before his death. These pieces included the fear of failure that haunted his career and the childhood and adolescent experiences that shaped his performance and creation of the tramp.
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But despite the unanswered questions that will forever cloud the private life of Chaplin. Middleton and Spinney manage to paint one of the most complete portraits we may ever see of a man who defied the restrictions of his background to become a cinematic icon. Here we are offered a series of creative techniques that attempt to reveal the man beneath the image and the celluloid world he created. Using recently unearthed archive footage and reconstructions, The Real Charlie Chaplin is a fascinating portrait of a man whose public image hid his inner doubt. Here The Real Charlie Chaplin is at its most engaging when exploring Chaplin’s place in the society surrounding him and the artistic choices he made in reflecting an often turbulent world of seismic change.
The Real Charlie Chaplin is at its most assured when exploring the socio-political downfall of Chaplin and his troubled escape from the tramp who made him famous.