One of the greatest comedians in cinema history, Peter Sellers brought joy to millions of people in the sixties and seventies, whether as a bumbling French inspector, an insane former Nazi genius or as a crazy doctor trying to find eternal youth (the latter of which you may never have heard of). But even when he was pleasing the masses, Peter Sellers remained a mystery, shrouded under a blanket of darkness and to this day, many still do not know who the real Peter Sellers was. In The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, based on the book by Roger Lewis, director Stephen Hopkins (24, Predator 2) attempts to go where no-one has gone before and undercover the real man behind the “mask.”
We join the eponymous comedian, played exceptionally by Geoffrey Rush, in his heyday on The Goon Show, taking over the airwaves with partners Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe as they chortle and chuckle there way to comedy stardom. But despite his fame, and his marriage to Anne, which has produced two children, Sellers wanted more. He wants to be where the real recognition is: the movies and wants to be the biggest star in the world. But becoming one is harder than he thinks and it takes a miraculous disguise to get him his first gig, the kind of masquerade that Peter Sellers would become accustomed with over the course of his career in the movie business. But that career would jeopardise and destroy numerous things in Sellers' life, including his subsequent divorce of Anne, his infatuation with Sophia Loren, his volatile relationships with Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) and his second failed marriage to Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron), all of which would make up the life and death of Mr. Peter Sellers.
Directed with enthusiasm and obvious adoration by Hopkins, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a whimsical, honest and flamboyant portrayal of a man who, in his own words, had no real self stating that he did have a true personality, but that he “had it surgically removed.” That statement goes some way to explaining the unseen side of Sellers' persona, always choosing to bury himself under varying characters, all of which he seemed to enjoy more than being himself. Indeed, Sellers the private man was an anti-social jerk, who was nasty, selfish and at times narcissistic. But rather than try to delve into the unknown and piece together who Peter Sellers really was, Hopkins and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely use those who rounded out his life and utilise them as tools and allow the audience to decide what they think/thought of him. These of course are somewhat fictional opinions, but do serve as a great storytelling tool, giving a nice point-of-view from people like Sellers' parents, his first wife Anne and director Stanley Kubrick, all of whom are played with delight by Rush. Director Hopkins also adds some nice touches in his recreations of some of Sellers' career highlights and also creates a wonderfully inventive scene when Sellers' has his first heart attack, where he literally comes back from the dead.
The problem with the story is that with so much of the film taken up by the eponymous comedian, both in his film roles and in his interpretations of others, there is little room for the other characters involved to manoeuvre. The biggest loser is Theron's Ekland who only pops up after about an hour and is gone just as quickly. Indeed, the majority of the supporting roles have very little time on screen and although all are played by top-notch actors, with John Lithgow as Blake Edwards and Stephen Fry as Sellers' guru Maurice Woodruff fairing better than others, it just seems that a little more time and attention to them would have gone a long way in helping us to understand him better, seeing as though these are the people who had more of an effect on Sellers and vice-versa that anyone else during their times together.
In addition to this, the film's makers also make the decision to miss out a chunk of Sellers career in the early seventies, which for me was when Sellers became more troubled than ever. Having just suffered a heart-attack, Sellers fell out of the public eye, making flop after flop and becoming box-office poison, becoming so bad that Sellers quips in the film “the best way to clear out a cinema is to put on one of my films.” Sure, maybe due to time constraints etc, this part of Sellers' life had to be missed out, but surely this period of time would have let us understand the troubled boy within, why he is who he is and why he finds it so difficult to interact with anyone without a false nose or a moustache building a barrier between him and his loved ones.
But, thankfully despite these faults, the film isn't anything less than entertaining, mainly due to Rush, who here gives one of the best performances of his career. As with Jamie Foxx in his Oscar winning mimic of Ray Charles, Rush perfectly captures the essence and core of Sellers, bringing him back to the screen with great wit and intelligence and with fantastic wardrobe backing him up, you'd swear it was Sellers himself up on screen as Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove or Chance the gardener. It could easily have been any actor up there, but Rush perfectly embodies everything about the great comedian, from his elastic-like body movements, quirky one-liners and impeccable comedic timing. It's a superbly rounded performance and although Rush's accent fades slightly at times, still holds the screen beautifully.
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