FILM / The lovey and the tramp

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The Independent Culture
Richard Attenborough's cinema of hero-worship came into its own with a subject, Gandhi, who was a major shaper of events, then went on to treat a man (Steve Biko in Cry Freedom) who suffered rather than achieved - whose suffering, indeed, was his achievement, when he became a human rallying cry for his people. Now, with Chaplin (12), Attenborough turns his attention to an artist who found his way into public life only by accident, and didn't really know what to do with the power he was given.

Hero-worship is not in itself a bad reason for making movies: a strong motivation of some sort is certainly needed to get any film project off the ground. But Chaplin's career, though an extraordinary one, accelerated by an instant and overwhelming celebrity and precariously braked by perfectionist willpower, is still only a career rather than a shaped story.

Waves of screenwriters have been sent in (William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman are credited), without being able to establish much more than a beachhead. There isn't a lot here that could be described as an exploration of a man's interior. Charlie's childhood, as the film shows it, is nothing if not Chaplinesque. Everywhere the camera points it is haunted by the Ghost of Shtick to Come. A blind match- seller calls out affectionately to the young boy; a man in the street has a distinctive shambling gait, his feet turned out; young Charlie rescues from a mudflat a battered boot of the sort that the Little Tramp will famously wear and famously eat. With all this tragi- comic material forcing itself on him, who could he turn into except the Charlie Chaplin we know?

This Chaplin has a psychology, but not one that explains anything or even complicates our understanding of him. Certain things stand outside it, as if by agreement: Chaplin's father, for instance, whom he barely knew, was a drinker, and one of Chaplin's early acts was as a comedy drunk, but there is no feeling that there might be a transformation of pain involved here. The area of psychology is agreed to be the area of the mother and of the child-bride.

Geraldine Chaplin, playing her grandmother Hannah, turns in a properly haunted performance, but the effect of his mother's mental instability on the growing Charlie is hardly even sketched in. Chaplin's fascination with young girls is psychologised as compulsive repetition not of a childhood event or fantasy but of his first wispy adult romance, with Hetty Kelly. There is a Lolita-frisson to a moment when Chaplin asks a young woman to put on lip-rouge for his benefit before coming to bed, but even here the film hardly ventures outside its hero's self-understanding.

This isn't exactly surprising, since Chaplin's widow Oona, the last of the child-brides and the one who lasted, gave the project her approval. (She sought no power of veto, perhaps realising she would have no need of it.) Attenborough tries to give the impression of putting Chaplin's account of himself under a certain amount of pressure, while effectively letting it stand. After Oona's arrival there is no psychology, only worldly difficulties - lawsuits, expulsion from America - and late-autumnal happiness.

The convention of the film is that Chaplin is defending the evasiveness of his memoirs to a fictional editor-figure, played by Anthony Hopkins. (There is also the suggestion that a young Chaplin, taking off his costume and make-up in a mood of post-performance tristesse, is brooding over his early life.) Some early scenes start with a stylised tightening of focus, as of memory sharpened by questioning.

This is a rhetoric of probing rather than the real thing, as we see from the scene where Chaplin invents his trademark character the Little Tramp. The editor interjects a decisive 'bullshit]' after the Tramp's hat and cane have wobbled spookily to alert Chaplin to their possibilities, but the supposedly more astringent second version of the breakthrough is no more realistic. Chaplin is superimposed on the screen several times, frantically trying on different costumes in a row of mirrors, and turning back on his tracks at the last moment to fetch a moustache when a hanging hank of rope gives him the idea. The rope doesn't actually twitch on its hook but it might as well.

Scene after scene is like a business meeting, with an agenda to be got through against the clock. A particularly clumsy example is a party at which Chaplin a) makes a lifelong enemy out of J Edgar Hoover with his left-wing sympathies, b) apparently improvises the dance with bread rolls that will appear much later in The Gold Rush - a stroke of sustained inspiration which contradicts other sequences stressing the slowness of Chaplin's working method - and c) discovers that his latest lover's pregnancy is a pretence. All this and dinner too.

When a strong character in real life is also strongly cast, the film takes a turn for the better. Diane Lane as Paulette Goddard is by a long way the most sheerly interesting of the women in Chaplin's life, though her independence made her an atypical choice for him; some part of Chaplin didn't particularly want women to be vertebrates. The scenes that feature Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks are the best in the film, and the friendship between the two stars is unusually full of human interest. Chaplin's brute fame unbalanced almost all of his relationships, while here a rough parity in status made possible an intimacy not founded on similarity.

As a director Attenborough has no pretensions to being a stylist. At most he goes in for little flourishes of film language, either borrowing from the vocabulary of early cinema (wipes, dissolves, irises) or producing mannered effects that don't add anything to what his actors have already shown. An example would be the moment when Chaplin's half- brother and manager Sydney (Paul Rhys), objecting to the political content of The Great Dictator, is silhouetted against the wall where Hitler's image was strutting a moment before.

As a director of actors, Attenborough's touch is more sure. He is helped by an extraordinary central performance by Robert Downey Jr, who exceeds expectations in all departments. He meets every demand that is made on him, athletic, comic and emotional, and is in himself reason enough to see the film. It is ironical, though, considering Chaplin's mistrust of the talkies, that the most poignant part of Downey's performance should be Chaplin's careful enunciation in old age - the Received Pronunciation of social fear, shocking in someone who had been the most famous man in the world.

(Photograph omitted)