The biographical documentary “The Real Charlie Chaplin” attempts to restore a sense of mystery to the more than famous subject. The filmmakers, Peter Middleton and James Spinney, usually run through the well-trodden timeline of Charlie Chaplin’s life and fame—from poverty to ubiquity to exile in Switzerland—but they continue to take an astonished, investigative approach.
Narrated by actress Pearl Mackie (“Doctor Who”), the film maintains a brisk pace and tries Chaplin from several angles: his technique of working out comedic bits and scenes for the camera; the story of an impersonator named Charlie Aplin; his satire of Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator”; and his virtuoso creation, the Little Tramp, which is linked to the star’s impoverished upbringing in South London. There is also commentary from actor and director Mack Sennett, actress Virginia Cherrill (star of “City Lights”) and Lita Gray Chaplin, who worked for Chaplin at age 12 and married him when she was 16.
The film features two dramatizations of audio interviews by actors with lip-syncing (a method the directors also used in “Notes on Blindness”). In one conversation, Chaplin shares behind-the-scenes tidbits to Life magazine in his Swiss mansion; in the other, an elderly neighbor in south London reminisces about Charlie’s Kevin Brownlow (who himself directed the important 1983 three-part series ‘Unknown Chaplin’). There is also a replica of a controversial 1947 press conference.
Middleton and Spinney tackle Chaplin’s romantic scandals, but sympathize with his persecution by anti-communists in the United States. The ominous promise of the film’s title fades into predictable perspectives from members of his family. But this introduction to Chaplin shines when he performs, showing his comedic genius for doing everything to perfection.
The real Charlie Chaplin
Not judged. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters and on Showtime platforms December 11.