The Real Charlie Chaplin review: New documentary never delivers on the promise of its title

Dir: Peter Middleton, James Spinney. 12, 114 minutes.

Is The Real Charlie Chaplin guilty of false advertising? Its title promises an excavation – it’s no secret that Chaplin was a complex man; a victim of anti-communist hysteria who also acted abusively towards women and preyed on teenage girls. But it’s hard to tell whether directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney are truly being honest about the impossibility of squaring up his problematic side with the rousing, everyman innocence of the Chaplin we see on screen.

Narrated in soothing tones by Doctor Who’s Pearl Mackie, The Real Charlie Chaplin is more like a YouTube video essay – where aesthetics and mood are of equal importance to content – than a conventional documentary. It’s heavy with questions, doled out like a stoic therapist. “Who is he?” Mackie asks, as footage from Chaplin’s early shorts play. Why, in these films, does Chaplin’s Tramp character spend so much time staring directly down the lens at us? What does he mean to us – the moustachioed clown known and loved around the world, who grew out of the Vaudeville circuit and played the everyman in a time of economic strife?

Middleton and Spinney’s documentary is a rich collection of archival material, including a previously unheard audio interview with a childhood friend of Chaplin’s named Effie Wisdom, recorded in 1983 and discovered by historian Kevin Brownlow. As an introduction to Chaplin’s life, it works handsomely. Photographs, newsreels and film clips are put together with a Wes Anderson-esque flair while interviews play out over lipsynced, dramatic reconstructions. While it’s a more engaging approach than the traditional talking head, it also unnecessarily distances us from the truth.

The Real Charlie Chaplin begins with the actor’s impoverished childhood in south London, then onto his early exploits on the music hall stage and his move to America in 1910, at the age of 21. The obvious points are all covered: the making of his first full-length feature, The Kid (1921), his co-founding of film studio United Artists, and how a shared choice in facial hair led Chaplin to both parody and denounce Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator. We end on his downfall, spurred on by a scandalous paternity suit and a mutual grudge against him shared between FBI director J Edgar Hoover and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. In 1952, Chaplin was essentially exiled from the US, living out his final years in Switzerland with his fourth wife Oona O’Neill (they married when she was 18, he was 54). We hear from several of Chaplin’s children, including actor Jane Cecil Chaplin. She recalls that she spent much of her youth just wanting a conversation alone with her father: “I had grown up with the icon, but the man – I had no idea who the man was.”

The film might not give us a “definitive” portrait of its subject, but it does give us an expansive one. It offers a voice to the women in his life, including second wife Lita Grey, who starred in The Kid at 12 years old and married Chaplin at 16. There are existing interviews with her, conducted when she was in her eighties and in which she discusses the “cruelty” she suffered at Chaplin’s hands. But, as she notes, no one ever wanted to listen – journalists would be too quick to bring the subject back to Chaplin’s genius. Yet while The Real Charlie Chaplin doesn’t fall into this trap, the conclusion that Chaplin remains inscrutable feels neither new nor substantial.

“Enjoy any Charlie Chaplin you have the good luck to encounter. But don’t try to link them up to anything you can grasp,” comes a quote from writer Max Eastman at the start of the film. “There are too many of them.” At the very least, The Real Charlie Chaplin is honest enough to admit defeat from its first frames.

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