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`Chaplin' Lacks Feeling, Warmth

Director Attenborough fails to evoke the richer undercurrents of Chaplin's tangled life

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WHEN he was 11 years old, Richard Attenborough saw Charles Chaplin's classic "The Gold Rush" in London, and it changed his life forever. "I think it was at that moment that I wanted to become an actor," he says in the publicity for "Chaplin," his film biography of the great comedian. "I couldn't believe that a man could make you laugh and cry at the same moment."

Mr. Attenborough did become an actor, and in his best moments on the screen - in a rousing musical number from "Doctor Doolittle," for instance - you may see traces of Chaplin's influence on his work.

Attenborough also became a filmmaker, and here too Chaplin may have influenced him, since like Chaplin he seems determined not only to entertain the world but to improve it. Attenborough movies like "Gandhi," about the great Indian pacifist, and "Cry Freedom," about the fight against apartheid in South Africa, have political as well as dramatic and cinematic goals - as did such Chaplin pictures as "Monsieur Verdoux," "The Great Dictator," and "A King in New York."

Attenborough is no Chaplin, however, despite the inspiration he may have drawn from him. Among his many other virtues, Chaplin was above all a master of mood and emotion, able to flesh out a simple story with such rich feelings - often blending deep sadness and high hilarity into a seamless whole, as Attenborough rightly notes - that a virtual universe of comedy and tragedy could seem concentrated in the simplest of his stories.

By contrast, Attenborough is an oddly mechanical filmmaker, good at logistics but lacking in the warmth and sensitivity that any true artist needs. Most of "Chaplin" is typical Attenborough cinema: crisp, carefully planned out, and far less touching than it ought to be.

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