The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

on December 05, 2004 by Mary Colbert
At its fanfare Riviera launch in 2003, "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," HBO Films' biopic of the comic genius, directed by Stephen Hopkins ("Under Suspicion"), seemed to have everything going for it. A stellar cast headed by Oscar winners Geoffrey Rush in the lead and Charlize Theron as his lover and second wife Britt Ekland; British talent Emily Watson seconded by Rush to play first wife Anne; and a brilliant supporting ensemble. Professionally, a scintillating subject whose films still have a cult following and wider resonance, delivered (compliments of Sellers' estate) with a massive home movie collection. Personally, the film aimed to expose the comic's less well known psychological underbelly--a tormented , erratic, at times cruel, lost soul who used his masks and impersonations to fill the void within. A promoter's dream--it came tinged with controversy generated by Sellers' brother, Michael, who objected to the negative spin in the biography on which the screenplay was allegedly based. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the Cannes competition's most awaited movies.

Certainly performances are the film's greatest asset, particularly a tour de force by Geoffrey Rush (minus just the occasional Australian twang slipping though) and highly impressive turns by Watson and Theron. And it is a Sellers feast: The film depicts his professional rise from the time he's catapulted into film as a result of the success of The Goons, a troupe of BBC radio comic anarchists, culminating in "The Pink Panther," "Dr Strangelove" and "Being There," followed by his downward spiral. The writers and Hopkins go to great lengths to recreate the era through music and art direction, and highlight screen personae from his prolific 70-movie repertoire. But the movie becomes a victim of its own ambitions. Just as Sellers lacked a center, so too does this movie. There are too many styles and dizzying surreal impressionistic brush-strokes which fail to coalesce into a coherent vision. There are enjoyable and insightful patches and vignettes, but it's tonally too discordant to fuse into a satisfying work that the master satirist's life deserves. Possibly Hopkins was out of his depth here. It would be interesting to have seen what a more sophisticated director might have made of the Sellers enigma. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Charlize Theron, Emily Watson, John Lithgow, Stanley Tucci, Miriam Margoyles and Stephen Fry. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Produced by Simon Bosanquet. An HBO Films release. Biographical drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 129 min.

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