Review: The Real Charlie Chaplin

Written and directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney, co-written by Oliver Kindeberg, a look at the life and work of Charlie Chaplin in his own words featuring an in-depth interview he gave to Life magazine in 1966. Narrated by Pearl Mackie and starring: Jeff Rawle, Paul Ryan, Anne Rosenfeld, Dominic Marsh, Paul Leonard, Eben Young and Haley Flaherty.

They say to never meet your heroes and a similar coda applies here, if you’re a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin, then that might be slightly dampened by finding The Real Charlie Chaplin. Interestingly this documentary can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a more in-depth look into the man behind the legacy or a love letter. It’s filled with nostalgia and set in the tone of homage, but when it takes detours into his private life, particularly that of his partners, the image it sets is one of a manipulative tyrant with huge potential to do mental and emotional damage to people in both his professional and personal life. It’s a strange conflict, his treatment of women shouldn’t be skirted around but at the same time, it’s an unpleasant progression to go from that to an outpour of love for him. It’s not the only issue that the film has but it’s one that stands out, but is also potentially one that could have been smoothed out with better editing and progression choices.

Another issue is the use of recreations, they don’t always have value to add and this is one of those instances. They take away from the otherwise strong historical atmosphere it builds, there’s a wealth of archive material to use, so it’s fairly unnecessary to add them, or they even could have simply been used audibly alongside the narration, rather than physically. There’s simply something to them that cheapens the overall style. However, one of the more interesting explorations of the film is Chaplin as a filmmaker during the evolution of film from silent to talking pictures. It’s a time that a lot of younger viewers may know very little about, and given the completely alternate realm that cinema lives in today, it’s always refreshing to revisit its more humble beginnings.

Overall, there’s a certain sense of sadness to the story they’re portraying, while seemingly happy-go-lucky in his films, he was far from it in real life. His directorial persona is a harsh one, with one actress recounting an experience not unlike that of Shelley Long being psychologically tormented by Stanley Kubrick while filming The Shining. It doesn’t ignore the joy his films bring people but does explore the price they came at for those involved. It briefly also tries to explore the more political leanings of Chaplin, especially in regard to The Great Dictator, but makes a few missteps with the unnecessary comparisons of the filmmaker’s life to that of Hitler, which strike an odd chord.

The Real Charlie Chaplin feels like a well-intentioned homage which didn’t foresee the darker side to Chaplin’s life, landing on a mismatched tone of admiration and critique. There’s some eye-opening information about the much-loved filmmaker’s personal life and working style but it gets bogged down by flashy recreations and a messy progression. It holds some interesting information but there was a stronger potential here that goes unfulfilled.

Verdict: ✯✯✯ | 6/10

Coming to UK cinemas 18 February

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2021

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