Chaplin’s life is relegated to camphor and nitrate, captured in negative and processed in color, an biography that reveals less of the man than his own fiction. Director Sir Richard Attenborough has the monumental task of condensing Chaplin’s story into a diminutive narrative, introducing the penniless child who would become the most famous person in the world by his 30th birthday.
The opening sequence begins in black and white as Chaplin transforms himself from Little Tramp back into his mysterious self, a complex identity that transcends the veneer of harsh makeup and ballet-like pantomime. The story is structured in flashback with Chaplin’s voice-over narrating his life, echoing through the ages, from his impoverished childhood to his soporific exile. Robert Downey, Jr. is quicksilver in the role of Chaplin, displaying his gentle madness while taking the edge off his obsessive perfection, perhaps a performance of the man we (the audience) want Chaplin to be and not the man he actually was. The fault then is not with Downey, but with defining a man who evades expectations and offers no explanations for his behavior or performance: Chaplin clearly states, if you want to know him watch his films.
The screenplay suffers from an overreaching story arc and becomes vignettes that reenact important phases of his professional and personal life, but offer no insight into the mind of the great comedian. Downey’s role becomes too reactionary and restrained, rarely allowing him to achieve the illusion of credibility in the role: his physical humor is good but he fails to capture the effeminate balletic gestures of the Little Tramp. In Downey’s defense (because I think he’s wonderful in this film!) it is impossible to mimic the great mime, and Downey does a hilarious improvisation from THE GOLD RUSH. Where he shines is under the makeup as the aging icon, especially in the final scene when Chaplin returns as the prodigal son, accepting the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, through a prism of tears his tender eyes gaze upon the silver screen one last time.
Final Grade (B-)