The famous story about Charlie Chaplin entering a lookalike contest for himself and then losing is an amusing, possibly apocryphal biographical tidbit. In the hands of documentarians Peter Middleton and James Spinney, it becomes the core myth of the silent era’s greatest clown: that no one could ever know really know the person behind the performance.
The film’s opening thesis – taken from a quotation by Chaplin’s friend Max Eastman – is that there was not one true Chaplin, but many of them: the comedian, the perfectionist artist, the communist sympathiser, the abusive husband. And though it presents almost all the major events of Chaplin’s life from his early childhood to the end of his career, the documentary’s title is dripping with irony. Just as we feel that we have grasped the truth behind the image, it vanishes into thin air: The Real Charlie Chaplin is a Sisyphean task of the directors’ own making.
The consequence is that Chaplin is forever kept at a distance, which suits Middleton and Spinney’s purpose, but it can also keep the people and events around him at an oblique angle. Narrated by British actor Pearl Mackie, much of the film consists of archival audio interviews of Chaplin’s associates. Especially notable is a childhood cousin of Chaplin’s as well as his second wife, Lita Grey Chaplin, whom he married at barely sixteen. If these interviews fail to reveal his inner life, they certainly illuminate his treatment of others. Indeed, through the people and events that surrounded Chaplin, Middleton and Spinney sketch a silhouette that offers at least an impression of a person, with all their complexities and contradictions.
Less elegant are the reconstructions of several of those interviews, with actors miming over the audio recordings. On a technical level, the footage ably replicates the smoky, brown tones of post-war era film and television. There is also a satisfying, if unsubtle, irony in keeping Jeff Rawle and Paul Ryan, who play Chaplin at various stages of his life out of focus, lingering spectral-like in the background. Yet more often than not the technique is distracting; one suspects that the filmmakers wished to avoid the documentary cliché of still images played over audio interviews and this is their solution.
The film, with its unreachable goal, has a lot of ground to cover so it’s understandable that much of Chaplin’s life is drawn with broad brushstrokes. Nevertheless, the effect is that parts of a story come to represent the whole. For example, Lita becomes a synecdoche for Chaplin’s first three marriages, while Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife, is skipped over entirely to get to Oona O’Neill; strange given the time the film rightly dedicates to Modern Times, in which Goddard co-starred with Chaplin.
Far more successful are the archival interviews with O’Neill and their children and it is in this segment that we approach something like the real person: a patriarch whose obsessions and perfectionism, his megalomania and ruthlessness, all stemmed from his intense desire for an audience. If there is one visible moment of the real Chaplin, it is the footage of tears streaming down his face as he was finally rehabilitated by the Hollywood that had once loved him.