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The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

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I am usually the last one out of a movie theatre who isn’t being paid attendance money. Having a friend in the film-making business encourages me to pore over every word of the credits, savouring every funny name and future legend.

So it came as a surprise to see several groups still debating ‘Peter Sellers’ as I rose to my feet. They clearly were not discussing the merits of the film, as that, alas, would have been a fairly short topic of conversation. A little eavesdropping led me to the conclusion that they were instead discussing the accuracy of several aspects of the tale.

And let’s be clear, this is a tale, rather than a biographic film. It starts at the end of Sellers’ ‘Goon Show’ years, when I would really have like to see the background to how he came to be there, his relationships with Milligan, Seacombe et al. It then presents a theory of Sellers’ life which can be pretty well summarised in two sentences. I can just about picture it in my TV Guide now—“Peter Sellers was a flawed comic genius whose character was shaped by his domineering mother. He was therefore bereft of actual character, existing largely in a miasma of invented characters, both on and off screen, leading to a series of failed relationships, dependence on a charlatan psychic and his ultimate death from a dodgy ticker”.

Well, that’s a perfectly good theory, but it’s all a bit simple. One only has to look at Sellers’ improvisation in the Goons, Lolita or Strangelove to realise that he was a very rare sort of genius indeed, and I for one would rather have a wider picture of his life and come to my own conclusions, rather than have an interpretation of a man whom I have related to in film over many decades thrust upon me. In a sense this is a myopic biopic and manipulative to boot.

Sure, director Steve Hopkins tries to make the journey interesting. Reality and film sometimes blur into an attempt at stream of consciousness. Like a Sellers film, Geoffrey Rush moves in and out of Sellers various persona, and also those of key players in Sellers’ life. It’s a valiant attempt, but ultimately it’s all a bit to obvious and indelicate. To me, the artifice of a film should be like a skeleton—I want to know it’s there, but I’d rather not see it all the time.

What nearly saves this film is the performances. Geoffrey Rush is perfectly cast and shows real versatility, particularly in the excellent recreations of vignettes from Sellers’ films. He is ably supported by Emily Watson as first wife Anne, Sonia Aquino as Sophia Loren and Charlize Theron who is spot on as Britt Ekland and continues to grow in stature as an actress, as well as being pleasant to look at. John Lithgow overacts horribly as Blake Edwards, which makes him just about perfect from my recollection (what did Julie Andrews ever see in that man?) and Stephen Fry tries to play Oscar Wilde again, but in the wrong movie. Frankly the film would have been better (and shorter) without his character.
But even fine performances are not enough to make this a good film. It is ultimately too deliberate and too obviously manipulative for that. And the clever vignettes recreating actual Sellers’ films actually made me want to rush out of the theatre to borrow those Sellers originals rather than prolong the agony much longer. For a true Sellers fan this film will be disappointing, but one will have the satisfaction of the self-importance which comes through recognising many of the filmic references. For the person unfamiliar with Sellers’ work, it will hold no interest whatsoever. Whichever camp you are in, rush to your video store and demand a copy of Dr Strangelove. It will teach you much more about Sellers’ confused comic genius than any myopic biopic.

(coming to the U.S. in December)

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About Clive Conway

  • Eric Olsen

    very clear, precise and literate review – thanks and welcome Clive!

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    What movie are you talking about?

  • Eric Olsen

    The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, out here in December

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I like to watch.