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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Leave 'em wanting more, 15 Jun. 2005
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This review is from: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers [DVD] [2004] (DVD)
Like its subject, this film is complex, stylised and vaguely unsettling. The title is slightly misleading, since you get a subset of Sellers' life and only a scrolling blurb about his death before the final credits - edited highlights, which is appropriate. What you do get is a highly fantacised interpretation of Sellers. He comes over as a misanthropic, petulant (with wives, children, anyone who got in his way), savage, selfish womaniser with a genius for mimicry but totally lacking a soul - a man perpetually hiding behind the mask of one improvised character or another. It didn't much seem to matter which. Indeed, he jokes in the film that he once had a personality but had it surgically removed. Enough to keep a small army of psychoanalysts busy for years!
This interpretation, which draws heavily on Roger Lewis's controversial biography, seems somewhat too neat and to draw selectively on the Sellers oeuvre but makes for spectacular cinema. The key device to illustrate the fragmented Sellers ego is to have his alter ego, Geoffrey Rush, play sequences as other characters, not least Sellers' parents, Blake Edwards and Stanley Kubrick. Not totally convincing, to put it mildly; nor are other fantasy sequences, included presumably to illustrate the zany and spontaneous Sellers approach to life.
That any of this anarchy hangs together at all is a measure of two factors: a screenplay structured as a fairly linear chronological biography, and a magnificent cast in which several fine British character actors come out especially well - Miriam Margolyes, Emily Watson, Stephen Fry and Peter Vaughan add powerful support throughout. Quality American actors are also up to the mark - Stanley Tucci makes a convincing Kubrick, while John Lithgow applies an energetic but sleazy veneer to Edwards, redeemed (presumably to curry favour with the real Blake Edwards) in the final scene of the film. Charlize Theron is an adequate Britt Ekland, but no better.
But the ringmaster is unmistakably Geoffrey Rush. This is an exuberant virtuoso performance constructed from a close look and feel but more particularly from a jolt of cerebral electricity. Rush wears Sellers like an old coat, playing surely his most difficult role since Shine with an eccentric, schizophrenic energy few could match (in fact, there is a little of David Helfgott here in Sellers, come to think of it.) Most difficult of all, he creates Sellers playing other roles and does it with a panache the man would have enjoyed greatly. Here was an actor waiting a lifetime for this role - that he was not rewarded by an Oscar is a travesty.
Director Hopkins dutifully sets the stage for Rush and cast, recreates with absolute precision the sets and performances from the Panther series, Dr Strangelove and Being There, but at other times appears to be painting by numbers. Indeed, he makes the point about what Sellers was not with admirable clarity, but fails to speculate about what was behind the mask with any degree of insight. That mystery will probably never be truly unravelled. In the meantime, enjoy Sellers on screen - it's the nearest any of us will ever come to the man.
In short, this is a very worthy attempt that nearly comes off, but not quite. Full marks for effort and a gold star for Rush. But how does the old stage motto go? "Leave 'em wanting more".
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