Chaplin Review

Chaplin is a 1992 bio-drama written by William Boyd/William Goldman/Bryan Forbes and directed by Richard Attenborough. The film stars Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin and it tells the story of the performer's life.


The story is good, however, it suffers from the same problems that every other post-Lincoln biographical picture had: they tried to tell the story of Chaplin's entire life. Bios that try this often end up the same way: pointless. The reason Lincoln worked so well is that it told a single story of Lincoln's life: him trying to pass the 16th Amendment. With Chaplin, you get a very broad sense of his whole life and so the movie isn't really about anything. It's just scenes cut together one after the other to show Charlie Chaplin's life. That's never worked for a movie, that's supposed to have a point, and it doesn't work here.

The screenplay is alright, but much of it doesn't stand out. However, a lot of the jokes they add are funny and a lot of the visual humor works well.

There are no real themes in the movie, which is another reason why having no point to the movie doesn't work. If you have no clear beginning, middle and end, then there's no message. It's odd that there isn't any message or theme to be found, because one of the characters actually remarks on how films can send a message and how it's important to think about what message you're telling.

There is one other problem I have with the story. They keep bringing up this girl that Chaplin met in England but had to leave. Every time they talk about her, it feels like the film just grinds to a halt for no reason.


There are quite a few visual homages to Chaplin's movies as well as the filmmaking of the silent era in general. For example, many of the edits in the movie are like those you'd see out of a picture from the early 1900s: iris ins and outs, swipes and fades to the next scene. There are also shots that are filmed with a strange grainy tint, like they're on a film reel. While the latter is fun to see, the shots they do this in are unfortunately chosen at random, making them stand out in a bad way. Sometimes it is used well, like Chaplin will be filming a scene and then the aspect ratio decreases and the colors change to black and white as we transition to an audience actually watching the movie. Perhaps if they had shot the whole movie like that it would've been too distracting, but just putting in the filter at random is no better.

The costume and make up design are top notch. All the detail to the clothing sells the early 20th century time period, especially during the first part of the movie, when it takes place in the London slums. I mention the make up because once they apply it, RDJ looks exactly like Charlie Chaplin. They did an excellent job capturing Chaplin's features.

The lighting is very good at capturing the time, location and mood. In the London slums, everything is drab and grey except for Chaplin's home, where there is a warm light in the room. When they're in the studio, there's cool white light and when they cut to old man Chaplin, it's overcast and grey. It's a great example on how lighting and color can be used to tell the story.

The main acting highlight is Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin. He portrays Chaplin's sadness and isolation while also selling the funny scenes. He somehow manages to make a character who should by all accounts be dislikable into somebody who feel sympathy for; a character who abandons his wife and children and a womanizer who only marries women after they get pregnant.

Though the cinematography is good for most of the time, there were a few scenes where the cut to another shot was jarring, in terms of location. For example, there's a scene that's set in the office of Chaplin's boss. The shot goes from his boss to Chaplin entering the room. However, there isn't enough room in the frame to let the audience know where Charlie is in the room in relation to his boss and thus we feel lost and aren't sure where we are.

I want to talk about one moment of sound editing that's about the only moment worth mentioning in this aspect of the movie: Chaplin is on a train when somebody tells him that the woman he loves is dead. As they tell him, you can hear this metal on metal screeching sound getting louder and louder. Then, when it finally sinks in it cuts off as the train enters a tunnel. It's a great use of sound that I'm disappointed isn't used int he film more.

Summary: This film, though it has its faults, is ultimately a well made love letter to Charlie Chaplin. It wanted to remind everybody that Charlie Chaplin is awesome and that he shouldn't be forgotten. I just wish they could've told a cohesive story to go along with it.



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