Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 14, 2023)
1939 remains known as Hollywood’s greatest year ever, with classics like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach. For another one of the year’s 10 Best Picture nominees, we go to Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
As his career in education winds to a close, 83-year-old Charles Edward Chipping (Robert Donat) – known as “Mr. Chips” – reflects on his 58 years at Brookfield, an English school. Charles started there as a 25-year-old rookie, one who encountered a mix of challenges.
Wet behind the ears as a teacher, Charles initially struggled with his students, but he eventually earned their respect. The film follows his career and its evolution.
Going into Chips, I expected an “inspirational teacher” tale ala To Sir, with Love or Dead Poets Society. That holds true much less than expected.
Indeed, Chips often avoids the school entirely, as its second act moves the movie more toward romance. On a vacation, Charles meets Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson) and falls in love.
This leads the plot away from the classroom for an extended period and shifts the focus from the anticipated bond between Charles and his students.
Should I fault the movie because it goes in a direction I didn’t anticipate? Probably not, but I think this means Chips comes with an awkward narrative.
And one often free of drama or much to make it compelling. We do get events in Charles’ life that add some disruption, but much of the movie just coasts along without a lot of impact.
Yes, we do get a tragic sequence around the end of the second act. However, it passes quickly and then the movie returns to its even, drama-free path.
I think the problem stems from the choice to depict the entirety of Charles’ career. I get that this intends to show his establishment as a steady presence, but the breadth of the tale means the film lacks depth.
We get to know none of the students well, and others don’t seem fleshed-out either. Even Charles never feels like more than a likable but personality-free character.
This means sections that should pack a punch don’t. For instance, when the movie hits World War I, it covers deaths of Brookfield attendees, but because the film barely introduces them first, we don’t experience any real sense of loss.
Donat fills the role well, especially as he makes Charles’ changes over the decades convincing. He benefits from surprisingly strong makeup that allows him to come across as a believable elderly man.
Too bad the movie itself seems so free from real investment or drama. Chips seems beloved, and I find it tough to locate anything objectionable here, but the end result just feels too devoid of development or impact to succeed.