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UK 1992
Directed by
Richard Attenborough
143 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


Full marks go to Robert Downey Jr. for his valiant portrayal of Charlie Chaplin but even so, his casting was a mistake for we are too aware of Downey the bad boy actor to believe him to be Chaplin the real-life focus of Richard Attenborough’s high-toned biopic.

Using the device of Chaplin’s publisher (Anthony Hopkins) discussing his autobiography with him in his retirement in Switzerland, the film charts Chaplin’s life from his beginnings in dire poverty in London’s East  End, abandoned by his father to a mentally-disturbed mother (played by Chaplin’s real life daughter, Geraldine Chaplin), to his journey to America where, working for Mack Sennett (Dan Ackroyd) he develops his “Little Tramp” character and his turbulent mature years when he became the object of  the paranoid attentions of J. Edgar Hoover(Kevin Dunn).

Scripted by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman based on Chaplin’s autobiography and a biography by David Robinson, Attenborough’s film is a blow-waved whistle-stop tour through Chaplin’s life, barely pausing for any one chapter bar Charlie’s early years.  There are replications of a few scenes from the Little Tramp movies (which Downey impersonates well) and a checklist of people in his life such as Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline), Sydney Chaplin (Paul Rhys), Paulette Godard (Diane Lane) and Oona Chaplin (Moira Kelly who also plays Hetty Kelly, the lost love of Charlie's music hall days in England) who appear and disappear nearly as quickly.

The film does achieve some emotional punch in the final stages when a skilfully-aged Downey does his best work (presumably Chaplin had had elocution lessons to lose his Cockney accent) culminating in a suitably tear-jerking Academy Award ceremony honouring Chaplin. Overall, however, the film is more notable for its glossy production values than any dramatic engagement.

FYI:  Interested parties should check out Arthur Hiller’s biopic, W.C.Fields and Me (1976).




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