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The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers
cast: Geoffrey Rush, Charlize Theron, John Lithgow, Miriam Margoyles, and Stephen Fry

director: Stephen Hopkins

122 minutes (15) 2004 widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Warner/Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Roger Keen
The biopic of someone known from the screen is a singular genre, requiring actors to impersonate as much as act, with the project often standing or falling on the quality of that palimpsest. Recently we've marvelled at Jamie Foxx's intricately detailed portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, and Cate Blanchett's Katherine Hepburn was one of the most memorable elements in The Aviator. And on the specific front of British comic geniuses, Rhys Ifan's uncannily accurate Peter Cook in Not Only But Always takes some beating.

Geoffrey Rush has more than proved his range in films like Shine and Quills, and he copes very well with the multiple faces and shifting sands of personality that make up Peter Sellers. Rush was 53 at the time of filming, just a year younger than Sellers when he died, so in the early Goon Show period he inevitably looks too old; but by Sellers' mid-career - the time of Strangelove and Clouseau - he has settled in nicely and got Sellers to a T. The only real problem with The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers is the narrative structure built around Rush's performance is a bit of a hotchpotch.

In part it's the old issue of life being so complicated and a film being so short, so selectivity kicks in and sometimes we're into a new chapter before we've really finished with the previous one. We start with Sellers the successful radio comedian, just before his break into films. He has a clingy and pushy mum (Miriam Margoyles), a vague dad (Peter Vaughan), and a staid and conventional wife, Anne (Emily Watson). Increased fame and wealth soon transform his life, but neuroses and temper-tantrums still plague him. In one scene, Sellers' young son Michael paints a go-fast stripe on his flash new Bentley, and he reacts by smashing up Michael's toys. It isn't as harrowing as it should be, and really more background is needed to explain the family dysfunctionality - as in the brilliant Shine, but that would take up a whole movie. Similarly an unreciprocated sexual obsession with Sofia Loren (Sonia Aquino) gets short shrift, though it becomes the catalyst for the break-up of Sellers' marriage, and the start of a journey to find himself, with the help of spiritual guru Maurice Woodruff (Stephen Fry) and worldwide renown.

As Sellers' career blossoms so does the film, and the sequences where he works with Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) on Dr Strangelove and Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) on The Pink Panther are its best part. Particularly good is the moment when Sellers creates the character of Inspector Clouseau whilst reading the Panther script onboard a plane, and then tries it out on a bemused stewardess who needs to get him settled as the plane lands. Sellers' high-octane relationship with Edwards is well captured too, showing the off-screen clowning and volatility that underscored their chemistry.

When Sellers starts to romance Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron), the film changes gear in an attempt to assert an identity of its own. As if the bag of material afforded by Sellers in movies, and on and off set, and in around his own home movies were not enough, director Stephen Hopkins overlays all this with fantasy sequences, such as an orchestra serenading Britt and Sellers, a Kubrickian near-death experience when Sellers has a heart attack, and a psychedelic pastiche to David Bowie's Space Oddity to show Sellers' popping, puffing and snorting activities. This section is driven by a sometimes-relentless period soundtrack - including: Tom Jones, Marvin Gaye and Stan Getz as well as Bowie - which, since GoodFellas, no film depicting the 1960s and 1970s can seemingly live without. All of this, together with different saturations of colour, grainy black-and-white, and alternating fast and slo-mo, create the over-busy kaleidoscopic feel of a film frantically in search of a style and losing itself in a quagmire of different guises - much as Sellers did himself.

Another of the film's odd devices is to have Rush as Sellers temporarily taking over the roles of other key characters - his father, mother, Anne, Edwards, etc - and giving his (Sellers') version of their view of himself. Although Rush's acting is superb, the device itself is disorientating and far too convoluted to be really effective. It reminds me of Rory Bremner doing an impression of somebody in the style of somebody else.

But The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers comes good at the end, with the story of Sellers' quest to film the Jerzy Kosinski novel Being There, about Chance, an empty nobody who rises to become President of the USA, simply because he can be all things to all people. This was how Sellers felt about himself, and showing his identification with Chance sums up his condition as a lost soul behind a clown's mask in a way that is fresh and avoids cliché.

The DVD extras consist of a short documentary, Making The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, deleted scenes, and two commentaries, one with Geoffrey Rush and Stephen Hopkins, and the other with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The documentary is a lightweight, self-congratulatory piece, where Hopkins and the principal actors discuss the challenge of tackling Sellers' zany and troubled character, intercut with the usual film clips. Its only real interest is the interview with an aged Blake Edwards, who tells us more about his working relationship with Sellers, and how destructive Sellers could be when he didn't like how things were turning out.

The deleted scenes section contains several more examples of Sellers 'doing' other characters, such as his heart surgeon and Maurice Woodruff, plus more frame-breaking moments, where we hear the word 'cut' and see earlier parts of the film on screen being analysed. It was very wise to delete these scenes, as they only serve to further highlight the film's sense of artificiality, rather than bring deeper insight. But also among the deleted scenes is a whole section involving fourth wife Lynne Frederick, and further action set around the making of Being There. In contrast, these scenes are very good, and give us more factual information about Sellers' life as appose to navel-gazing layers of analysis. It's a pity they weren't included in the final cut and more of the gimmicky stuff taken out. As an extra this package is a revelation!

The two commentaries spell out the concept behind the film: that in itself it's a "Peter Sellers film" as Peter Sellers himself might have made it - which puts the device of him taking over the roles of other characters, and the de-constructional elements, in context. It makes sense when they explain it - the problem is it really needs explanation! If there's a lesson to be learned from The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers it's that complex meta-filmic techniques don't work too well with a piece about a real-life subject, especially when that subject's life is so multilayered to start with. Sure, they wanted to get away from the format of the conventional biopic, but ultimately the best parts of the film are the more straightforward ones.
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