So this stylish Charlie Chaplin documentary feels strangely timely. Using archive clips, rare interviews and a sharp voiceover from Doctor Who actress Pearl Mackie, the film takes a contemporary look at the icon of early 20th-century cinema.
Raised in a London workhouse after his mother was sent to a mental asylum, the film attributes his ruthless ambition to an almost pathological fear of poverty. That drive had a dark side. Chaplin spent his last years in exile in Switzerland after falling foul of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI over alleged communist sympathies.
The film suggests the comedian may have suffered a similar fate, for very different reasons, in the #MeToo era.
“I was too old for him,” said City Lights co-star Virginia Cherrill when asked about rumours of an off-screen romance. She was 20 when the then 38-year-old Chaplin began shooting the first silent classic of the talkie era.
The doc gives voice to some of his female victims including Lita Grey Chaplin, who found herself pregnant by him at 15, married to him at 16 and very publicly divorced him three years later.
“He never felt anybody loved him,” she says. “He never believed it. He said, ‘Why would anybody love me?'” But the film also provides plenty of reasons why his onscreen persona, “the little tramp”, was so loved by fans across the globe. There are some wonderful clips of Chaplin kicking authority figures up the backside, and a powerful reminder of his stirring final speech from his anti-Hitler film The Great Dictator.
Chaplin and Adolf shared many similarities. They were born within weeks of each other, both grew up in poverty, both resented drunken absent fathers and, of course, sported eerily similar taches. They weren’t fans of each other’s work.
The film never quite locates the essence of the man beneath the bowler hat, but this thoughtful doc is packed with intriguing details and fascinating asides.