The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner28/09/2004

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 127 mins

Well written, stylishly directed, entertaining biopic with an Oscar-worthy performance by Geoffrey Rush.

Stephen Hopkins does not seem the most obvious choice of director for a biopic of one of cinema’s most gifted comedic actors – his CV is littered with below-average thrillers (Blown Away, Under Suspicion) or flat out stinkers such as Lost In Space.

Happily, his time spent directing episodes of TV’s 24 seems to have honed his skills in that department, because The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is an extremely well made film in which the direction is almost as impressive as Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-worthy performance.

Adapted From The Book

Adapted from the book by Roger Lewis, the film kicks off as Sellers (Geoffrey Rush) is enjoying success as a member of The Goon Show. As with any biopic, it’s impossible to fit in everything, but Hopkins does a good job of showing us the edited highlights.

These include: Sellers’ infatuation with Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino); his uncomfortably close relationship with his overbearing mother (Miriam Margolyes); his divorce from his long-suffering first wife Anne (Emily Watson); his marriage to Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron) and his struggle to get his dream project, Being There, onto the screen.

In addition to his family life, we get a series of clever snapshots of his more famous movies and linger a little longer on two collaborations in particular: his work with Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) on the Pink Panther movies and with Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci) on Doctor Strangelove. Rush’s performance is nothing short of astonishing – he conveys Sellers’ manic energy and flights of genius but he also isn’t afraid to show him as a troubled and deeply unlikeable man, tantrums and all. Occasionally, this can also be darkly funny, such as when Sellers’ daughter asks if he still loves them and he replies, “Of course I do, my darling. Just not as much as I love Sophia Loren.” It’s a difficult performance because you never really sympathise with Sellers – by the end, you can only pity him.

The supporting cast is also extremely good, but the standouts are Margolyes, Theron (proving Monster was no flash in the pan), Watson and Stanley Tucci’s enigmatic turn as Kubrick. There are also cameos by Mackenzie Crook (as a pimp / car salesman in an amusing scene), a brilliantly cast but under-used Nigel Havers as David Niven, and Stephen Fry as a fraudulent psychic who Sellers turned to for career advice.

Impressive Pace Maintained Throughout

Hopkins maintains an impressive pace throughout the film, but he also uses several directorial gimmicks and flourishes that work brilliantly. Chief among these is the device of having Rush (as Sellers) delivering to-camera monologues in character as the other people in his life. This is particularly impressive after the break-up scene with Anna, in which Rush (as Sellers, as Watson playing Anna) redubs Anna’s lines so as to make himself appear more sympathetic.

There are several great scenes throughout the film – other highlights include: Sellers creating and testing out the Clouseau character on a transatlantic flight; his seduction of Britt Ekland; his fight with Britt (“You hit me with me mum!”); and a disturbing scene where he refuses to break character (as Doctor Strangelove) when his mother comes to visit him.

Ultimately, then, the film manages to answer its own main criticism – that the reason that we don’t get to see the “real” Peter Sellers is because Sellers himself didn’t seem to really know who he was. With that in mind, this is an extremely enjoyable, engaging biopic that’s worth seeing for Rush’s performance alone. Great soundtrack too.

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Content updated: 18/01/2020 16:26

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