Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

It is said that doctors are the worst patients and attorneys are the worst clients. Same could be said for actors when they happen to be film characters. At least this is the impression viewer may get from THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS, 2004 biographical drama directed by Stephen Hopkins.

The film, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is based on Roger Lewis' biographical book about Peter Sellers (1925 - 1980), one of the most talented British actors and icons of 20th Century's popular culture. The plot follows Sellers (played by Geoffrey Rush) from mid 1950s, when he used to be popular BBC radio comedian, and shows how his successful break into film industry and, later, Hollywood had devastating effects on his personal life, alienating him from friends, colleagues, family, and, finally, leading to his death.

Like all biopics, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS is faced with a problem of compressing complexities of someone's entire life into a single feature film. Scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely confronted this task by trying to find balance between Sellers' amazing multiple screen images and his prosaic - and often obnoxious - real self. The film argues that Sellers used his roles as an escape from his personal neurosis and emptyness. As a result, Sellers comes as not particularly interesting or sympathetic character.

Thankfully, even such "empty vessels", as Sellers calls himself during the film, can be made interesting when they are played by Geoffrey Rush, Australian actor who approached the role with enthusiasm of a hungry child in a candy store. Rush plays not only Sellers, but Sellers impersonating various important characters from his life. This proves not only too confusing, but also too "artsy" and too pretentious for most audiences. On the other hand, Hopkins' use of various "clever" cinema tricks are more bearable, especially when they depict fascinating world of 1960s and 1970s macho fantasies Sellers had lived in. Rush is, of course, great in his role, while his colleagues perform admirably in the thankless task of providing him with support, most notably John Lithgow as Blake Edwards.

The biggest flaw of this film is the same flaw that affects most other biopics about popular culture icons - in order to really appreciate it, the audience has to have some prior knowledge about the icon. Therefore, unless audience can relate to the works of Edwards' or Kubrick's movies, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS would mean very little to it. On the other hand, fans of Sellers and his work would probably appreciate this flawed but fascinating tribute.

RATING: 5/10 (++)


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