Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS

6/10

USA (US/UK) 2004 : Stephen HOPKINS : 122 mins

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers must count as one of the most dauntingly ambitious movie-projects for years. It’s based on Roger Lewis’s exhaustive biography – a thick doorstep of a book which screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had to somehow boil down to manageable feature-film length. More than two decades after his death the subject remains an emphatically recognisable celebrity, presenting a daunting challenge to any actor even before the complexity of Sellers’ own performances – such as the multiple roles in Dr Strangelove – is taken into account. Then there’s the fact that Sellers himself seems to have been such a deeply unsympathetic figure, a borderline sociopath whose enormous talents, unbridled ego and persona-swapping facility hid his own chilling lack of identity.

Add it all up, and you get a challenge which might have taxed Orson Welles in his prime. And Hopkins – whose previous credits include The Ghost and the Darkness, Predator 2 and Lost In Space – is clearly no Orson Welles, displaying an irritating fondness for incessant muzak on the soundtrack and hand-held, distractingly soft-focus visuals. But he otherwise makes quite a fair stab at Markus and McFeely’s unwieldy, episodic screenplay, which spends so long on Sellers’ (Geoffrey Rush) first marriage – to Anne (Emily Watson) – that it has to gallop through the latter part of his career, stopping just short (despite the film’s title) of his premature demise.

Throughout the narrative there are post-modern sequences in which Rush, as Sellers, “plays” the main participants in his life, from Anne and his domineering mother (Miriam Margolyes) and henpecked father (Peter Vaughan) to Pink Panther director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow). While this intriguing psychological conceit doesn’t quite come off, the film is never less than a striking showcase for Rush’s virtuouso performance (although John Sessions might have been even better). Despite the slight rubberiness of his facial prosthetics, Rush gets Sellers’ many voices spot-on, and the distinction between actor and role rapidly blurs. Though we never remotely like this stunningly insensitive “miserable lying shit”, it’s horribly absorbing – somehow enjoyably depressing – to witness the epic scale of his dysfunction.

20th September, 2004
[seen 5th June : Vue, Leicester : press show – CinemaDays event]

by Neil Young