The Real Charlie Chaplin is an honest take on a cinematic genius
Over a century on from his most famous film The Kid, Charlie Chaplin remains a singular figure in the history of cinema. In the film hub of Leicester Square, his statue has been standing since 1981, a short distance from London’s BFI IMAX, located on Charlie Chaplin Walk. Like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, his image alone conjures up the magic of The Movies.
Behind the legend was a complicated storyteller, whose life has been celebrated on screen many times including a 1991 biopic with Robert Downey Jr. With that in mind, there is some unease behind the title of new documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin. With so many star docs becoming either eulogies or assassinations, a promise of the truth is met with scepticism.
Narrated by Pearl Mackie (Doctor Who), it’s both an introduction and meticulous guide to the life of the silent film star. From his early beginnings in the workhouses of London, to his breakthrough in Hollywood, and a Communism scandal that saw him exiled from his beloved United States. Chaplin fans will point out that there was a lot more in between, and directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton make sure almost everything is accounted for.
The film looks at both his work and the reasons he was so popular. It dissects the meaning of his most famous character, The Tramp, and his universal appeal (“He’s a nobody, and he belongs to everybody). It also delves into the political motivations behind his 1940 hit The Great Dictator, sacrificing his image as the lovable hobo in order to send a message about Hitler, a man with whom he had numerous incidental parallels.
“When the greatest comedy performer of all time finally speaks,” Mackie says gently, “it’s not to tell a joke”. It’s a fascinating examination of craft, but this is no teary-eyed tribute. Helped by the narrator’s subtle tone, the documentary looks at the dark side of the man as unflinchingly as it does the genius. It confronts his problematic behaviour with teenage partners, and how his fame meant his ex-wives (Lita Grey in particular) are shouted down when they speak up. It’s an eerily prescient reminder that society still too often favours icons over justice.
The Real Charlie Chaplin delivers on its promise. It doesn’t reveal anything new, but through craft and sensitivity reminds us that even eternal heroes have many sides to them.