Stealing Chaplin review – charm pays in messy crime caper

Sibling graverobbers spark off each other in the somewhat true story of an attempt to ransom the comedy legend’s body

At one point in Stealing Chaplin, a sozzled huckster tries to pry open a Union Jack-draped coffin as Land of Hope and Glory rings out on the soundtrack. Maybe this somewhat amateurish but spunky low-budget crime film has hit on something: in the post-Brexit era, Brits are no longer stock movie villains; conmen and chancers are our natural fits now. The hustle here is in splendidly questionable taste: the casket is Charlie Chaplin’s, whom brother grifters Cal (Simon Phillips) and Terry (Doug Phillips) have disinterred in order to ransom his body so they can pay off the $30,000 they owe to Las Vegas gangsters.

You’d be forgiven for being suspicious, but this is actually based on a true story – though the theft occurred in 1978 in Switzerland, where Chaplin is buried in real life. Director Paul Tanter juices it up into an Ocean’s 11-style caper complete with rinky-dink music playing over diner scenes as the brothers scheme and squabble. Police captain Goddard (Liliana Vargas) slowly cottons on to the fact that the shysters running a National Leprosy Day scam are also graverobbers, while a perplexing cabal of mobsters, bent cops and – why not? – the brothers’ landlady try to lay hands on the cadaver-cum-cash distributor for themselves. Best not poke around in this all-day-buffet of a plot too much.

Stealing Chaplin’s acting and camerawork are also uneven, and the smooth-talking young brother chaperoning his lost-cause older sibling feels like a cliche. But the two Phillipses (no relation) spar so enjoyably – meting out their grievances in daft minutiae such as Terry’s insistence that tomatoes were once widely considered poisonous – that lingering in their company (and some scenes do linger) is an Elmore Leonard-esque pleasure. The gap-toothed Doug Phillips, who wrote the script, is the more eye-catching performer, with a kind of off-kilter forlornness. Despite the rough edges, Stealing Chaplin has an unflagging, garrulous confidence that whisks you along.

• Stealing Chaplin is available on 6 December on digital platforms.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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