Sir.Richard Attenborough’s cradle-to-grave, rags-to-riches biopic of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) is anything but a hagiography, and should be more appositely re-titled as CHAPLIN AND HIS WOMEN, since the meat of this lofty work sees Charlie (Downey Jr.) gyrating from one wife to another (four in toto plus other conquests), meanwhile the more intriguing facet of his cinematic creative process is ruefully taken a back seat.
It is a warts-and-all treatment, yet somehow overreaches itself on the“warts” department, Chaplin is repeatedly portrayed as a love fool who cannot overcome his sexual predilection of younger girls (viz. jailbait), starting from his first crush Hetty Kelly (Moira Kelly), to first wife Mildred Harris (a barely 16-year-old Milla Jovovich striking the bull’s eye of the ingénue sedcution with flaming lips), an ill-fated union with the independent Paulette Goddard (a classy Lane), until his last spouse Oona O’Neill (Kelly again to finish the circle), a none-too-subtle way of intimating that the right one is actually the one who gets away, which to a certain degree, cunningly shifts the blame on Hetty, the undertone seems to suggest that if she had accepted Chaplin's marriage proposal before he would put his name on the map in the celluloid boom town, his subsequent failed marriages would have no place in the history, a low move that hurts the film's integrity. Plus, save for her physical resemblance, we have no inkling why Oona is the one for keeps becauseAttenborough never shed any lights on her story (although Kelly is game enough to take on the dual role with slight discrepancy).
The frame narrative is actually set in Switzerland where an aging Chaplin discusses his biography at length with a fictive writer George Hayden (Hopkins), thetactic doesn’t quite work out, not just because Downey Jr.’s somewhat unconvincing warpaint (he looks rather hale beside Hopkins and the sparks in his eyes cannot disguise his real age of 26), but also it is padding out the story, only to prepare audience for the coda when Chaplin is given an overdue gong in the 1972 Academy Award ceremony for a special Lifetime Achievement, with footage of Chaplin’s films playing to make the most of one’s nostalgic admiration, but the emotional punch never packs, after 140 minutes, we still have a very indeterminate image of Charlie Chaplin, is he a Communist? Why he doesn’t apply for a USA citizenship after years in Hollywood and once being rejected for his assumed political orientation, it cuts an unrecoverable wound in his exile days,it contradicts with his apparent belief of the land of freedom and opportunity. All those questions are posed but not satisfactorily answered, maybe one should read his biography instead.
But in the end of the day, CHAPLIN has its inherent edge, it is a film about the king of comedy, so at the very least, it is never tedious on the eyes, not with a charismatic Robert Downey Jr. fleetly mimicking the tramp’s slapstick (he makes them look as effortless as Chaplin himself) and conscientiously emanating Charlie’s more subdued affect when he has his own hurdles to grapple with, may it be the resistance to the sound cinema, or a bigoted lawsuit from his former lover Joan Barry (Travis). It is also noteworthy that Geraldine Chaplin plays Hannah Chaplin, Charlie's head-case mother and her own grandmotherwith great affection, which prompts the inference that perhaps there is a hardwired monkey wrench in the works could be partially but potentially answerable for Charlie’s personal conflicts between his genius and frailties.
referential film: Tim Burton’s ED WOOD (1994, 7.4/10); Martin Scorsese’s THE AVIATOR (2004, 7.4/10).