Film reviews: The Real Charlie
Chaplin & South

Two extraordinary documentaries shedding light on the past are doing the rounds this month

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The Real Charlie Chaplin (from 18 Feb, Showroom Workstation, Sheffield and other venues) is Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s new documentary offering an extensive look at the life of the silent film star. 

The film charts his life from a childhood spent in a London workhouse to his escape to America, his rise to stardom, the Second World War – when he delivered a stunning satire on Hitler with his film The Great Dictator – and the scandalous accusations he faced as part of the “Red Scare” when he was accused of being a communist. Central to the film are some never-before-heard recordings, including interviews with the man himself, which give an intimacy often lacking in biopics of this kind. There’s also a smattering of home movies and some well-handled dramatic reconstructions to bring life to the proceedings, all set to excellent narration by Pearl Mackie. 

The documentary spends a good deal of time exploring the way Chaplin crafted his art. It reveals how he developed his on-screen persona The Tramp, and how he meticulously made his movies – some of them taking years to shoot. The footage of his work reminds us of what a brilliant comedian he was, such as the way he connected with the audience by looking down the camera lens with a cheeky raise of one eyebrow and his impeccable comic timing – tricks that set the template that on-screen comedians still use today. 

Also out in a remastered print with a new score by Neil Brand is South (22 Feb, the Dukes, Lancaster and other venues and dates), which is arguably the world’s first documentary feature film. Shot by Frank Hurley, the film is an incredible record of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica, which began in 1914. During the expedition the ship Endurance was trapped by ice, leaving the crew stranded and fighting for survival.

Watching images filmed over 100 years ago, with Brand’s new score to march the narrative along, is a mesmerising experience. From the awkward introductions of the crew members who smile nervously into the camera, to life aboard ship with the working dogs that were instrumental to the expedition and the images of mountainous icebergs as they draw ever closer, this is a chance to glimpse a dramatic historical event.

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