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The Real Charlie Chaplin LFF Film Review



There’s perhaps no icon who embodies cinema more than Charlie Chaplin; and yet we often conflate Chaplin The Man with his character The Tramp, confusing real for reel. Directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney, The Real Charlie Chaplin delves into the man beneath the moustache. Instead of finding a singular man, this documentary embraces the fact that Charlie Chaplin will always evade us, as a man, a phenomena, and as a myth. At the height of his fame, Chaplin was impersonated left-right-and-centre: ‘Chaplin fever’ spread through the world, through toys, costumes, even look-alike contests. It seems that Charlie Chaplin could never exist as just one person. There is an element of Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes”.

Piecing through rare audio-tapes, footage and dramatised reenactments, the directors recount Chaplin’s rise and fall, imbued with an almost Greek sense of tragedy. The pinnacle of Chaplin’s career, surrounded by a sea of fans, is later juxtaposed by his exile in Switzerland - the vacancy of the mountains appear beautiful but lonesome, like an empty auditorium. Chaplin’s loss of audience (his reputation tarnished by the FBI amid the Red Scare) would be detrimental to him; as a comedian, cutting him off from his public seemed as lethal as a severed artery. Some of the film’s most poignant moments display the Chaplin family’s home-movies, where an elderly (almost unrecognisable) Chaplin broodily passes through his estate and gardens, until a camera is turned on him. When facing a lens, the old man transforms back into a mischievous imp, as well as a man trapped in his lost grandeur. Footage of Chaplin playing tennis alone quickly conveys his underlying, dreadful loneliness.

The documentary fully humanises Chaplin, his cruelty on full display, his Hitler-like megalomania, his disturbing attraction to younger women, especially teenagers. Rather than disqualify his work in light of his flaws (or vice versa), the film allows all sides of Chaplin to co-exist, recognising that within that enormous cult of personality lies drastic imperfection - and what else could we expect? Chaplin is an operatic contradiction: comedian, orator, dancer, monster, philanthropist, activist, vindictive and generous. The documentary sometimes wonders off into vague territory, into generic Chaplin trivia, and it may have benefited from posing more concrete questions. Nonetheless there are moments of devastating insight, uproarious laughter, and there is a freedom where we are permitted to walk away and draw our own conclusions from that irresolvable question, ‘Who was Charlie Chaplin?’



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