Sunday 11 February 2007

Charly (1968) Ralph Nelson

While the opening credits roll we watch a man, presumably Charly, play with kids in a playground. He's having a great time but he hardly seems to be all there. Next thing we see he's watching intellectuals arguing about something important but without having any obvious fun. The suggestion is obvious: Charly may not have much in the way of brain power but he's enjoying life. He's fully functional and has a great character, able to hold down a job but unable to hold a grudge against those who make fun of him. He ends up laughing along with those co-workers who play tricks on him rather than getting upset.

What makes this story special is that scientists have worked out how to successfully perform an operation on mice to increase their IQ and they believe that they're now ready to try to the same thing on a human being. Naturally, Charly gets to be the guinea pig, but the results are both good and bad. Now he's able to learn and function at a much higher level, more and more all the time, but he's also able to see how he's been exploited and be aware of the negative. His intellectual progress also far outstrips his emotional progress but of course he's in uncharted territory.

Cliff Robertson won an Oscar for playing Charly, and that's not surprising in the slightest. It's a gift of a part, one that the Academy would always take notice of. Charly is disabled, not physically but mentally, and any story of struggle to overcome disability is always going to be noticed. Robertson does a superb job making us believe him as a mentally retarded adult, but he doesn't drop the ball when he becomes more intelligent than those around him. There's always something 'other' there to highlight how he's never really just like anyone else, yet in many ways he's always a little more than us in some direction or other. The revelations of the last third of the film grant him even more opportunity to shine and he lives up to all of it.

Outside of Robertson, there's the story, which was a classic in literature before it ever reached film. The story, and then the debut novel, both by Daniel Keyes, were both called Flowers for Algernon, Algernon being the test mouse that the retarded Charly races through identical mazes, Algernon physically and Charly on paper. Both were hugely successful, the novel even winning the Hugo Award, but Keyes turned out to be far from prolific. The filmmaking is interesting, with some very sixties split screen work and psychedelia. The rest of the cast though are entirely support and don't get any real opportunity to do much more, even Claire Bloom who is still well worth watching.

I'm pretty sure I've read the book, though a long while ago. My lass remembers it well and much prefers it to the film, which by necessity misses a lot of it out. Most importantly she says that the film doesn't have the passion of the book.

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