Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

The Goons might belong to my parents' generation, but in my humble opinion their humour is more incisive, subversive and downright hilarious than anything that has crawled out from under the rock marked 'comedy' in the last three decades.

So when Stephen Hopkins's 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' opened with a splendid evocation of BBC radio comedy circa 'The Goon Show' - Bluebottle, Bloodknock and Neddie Seagoon springing to life in nostalgic sepia - I was immediately won over. And from thereon in, the film just got better.

Two hours and ten minutes later I found myself wondering why every review I'd read had been sniffy and snidely critical. Then I realised. Talk about a collective example of missing the point. The accepted critical line is that Hopkins's film fails because it gives us no impression of who the real Peter Sellers was.

That's exactly the point! Adapted from Roger Lewis's shelf-breaking biography (1,200 pages!!), the film is a character study of a man whose personality was entirely dictated by the character he happened to be playing at any given moment. In the title role, Geoffrey Rush gives a career best performance, inhabiting Sellers's onscreen roles - Closeau, Chance Gardner, the militaristic triumrvirate at the heart of 'Dr Strangelove' - with an under-the-skin conviction, whilst showing Sellers fumbling between roles, unsure of who he is, who he should be and what his fans, family and children want of him. It's a tour de force of screen acting.

He is ably supported by the wonderful Emily Watson, the emotional heart of the movie as Sellers's first wife Anne; Charlize Theron, who conjures Britt Ekland so perfectly that you'll be hard pressed to tell the two actresses apart; Miriam Margoyles, finding the human element in what could easily have been a demonic performance as Sellers's obsessive, manipulative mother; Peter Vaughan in one of his rare sympathetic turns as Sellers's overlooked father; and John Lithgow in his best turn for ages as director Blake Edwards.

Hopkins directs with wit and humour, conjuring the aesthetic of the Sixties (Sellers's halcyon days as a screen actor) in a series of playful vignettes. The scene where Sellers visits a car showroom, the oleaginous salesman (step forward Mackenzie Crook, Gareth in 'The Office') describing the vehicles in perversely feminine terms; before Sellers's eyes, the cars morph into archetypal Sixties dollybirds. An entire saucy seaside-postcard strand of British cinema is evoked within a few seconds.

The denouement, in which Sellers brings his dream project - 'Being There' - to fruition is incredibly poignant, the actor revelling in finally being able to portray a character who has no personality at all.

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