Lest anyone think that Dustin Hoffman, Billy Bob Thornton or Sean Penn were the first actors to successfully tackle roles that involved playing mentally challenged protagonists - they were not. While Cliff Robertson wasn't the first, his role as the mentally retarded bakery worker turned supergenius Charly is still just as affecting today as it was prior to Rain Man, I Am Sam and Sling Blade. Based upon the Daniel Keyes novel "Flowers For Algernon," Charly stars Robertson as the titular character, who undergoes an experimental brain surgery which imparts the ability to learn at an accelerated clip.
Claire Bloom co-stars as Ms. Kinnian, Charly's instructor and eventual lover - the relationship, both personal and professional, which she shares with Charly forms the core of the film's story. As Charly's IQ soars to unprecedented levels, his emotional maturity remains somewhat stunted in comparison. It's Ms. Kinnian who must guide Charly through the peaks and valleys of his life, particularly when the effects of the surgery begin to inexplicably wear off and he finds himself slipping steadily back into the intellectual darkness from whence he came.
Robertson's carefully modulated performance is the centerpiece of Charly and it's a wondrous thing to behold; he moves from ridiculed outcast to smug, arrogant intellectual superior without missing a beat. You can see the dawning clarity as well as the pained realization that his brief window of "normalcy" is closing - a beautifully affecting performance that ranks among the best Robertson has ever given - yes, webheads, who knew there was life before Uncle Ben? Matching him every step of the way is Bloom as Ms. Kinnian; the film is, in effect, a two-character play that features incidental appearances from doctors or co-workers. The emotional centerpiece of Charly is that of the relationship these two share and these two actors bring it to life, in all of its conflicted, uplifting glory.
A little seen, underrated film that has elements of cinema verite and slightly adventurous cinematography (at certain moments in the film, the screen bisects and shows events from dual points of view simultaneously), Charly is a classic gem the whole family could easily watch and enjoy.
Charly is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side of the flipper and a fullscreen transfer on the other. Particularly in the opening and closing moments of the film, the image becomes particularly unstable and suffers from jittery movement that's really distracting. It settles down and overall, is an image largely free of damage. There is a bit of grain and dirt every so often, but nothing too noticeable. A decent transfer.
Offered in a warm Dolby 2.0 stereo mix, Charly blends Ravi Shankar's score and the dialogue well. There's no distortion and the conversations are clearly heard throughout.
There are no bonus features included - how this is possible when both Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom are still alive and presumably available is beyond me. A retrospective interview? A commentary track? How about a theatrical trailer? Throw us a bone here, MGM.
Robertson's stellar performance is reason enough to seek out this underappreciated little film - it's a haunting, occasionally moving look at love that is very much a product of its era; it likely would be an entirely different film today. Perhaps Hollywood has lost touch with its ability to make intimate character studies that enlighten as well as entertain. Nevertheless, this bare-bones disc will tide fans over until MGM decides to at least upgrade the bonus material (don't hold your breath).