It was always going to be difficult to make a film about the life of Peter Sellers. The man was an immensely complicated personality who claimed to have no underlying self. His life was a Molotov cocktail of drug abuse, women and heart attacks, interspersed with some of the finest character acting ever to grace the silver screen.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is an admirable attempt to portray or depict Sellers, recreating key scenes from his film career alongside problems in his personal life. But despite the best efforts of director Stephen Hopkins and a fine performance by Geoffrey Rush, it never quite satisfies either emotionally or biographically. Whether due to the physical limits of the production or the inherent complexity of Sellers the enigma, in the end it does little more than scratch the surface.
On the plus side, Peter Sellers (as it shall hence be called) does a very good job of replicating the various period settings. There are all the usual batch of camera tricks, such as using green-screen to recreate streets, and the colours of the film have been manipulated to give the appearance of degraded stock. But on top of the usual whistles and bells, the film captures a number of moments in Sellers' life with such accuracy that it could pass off as a documentary. This is particularly true of the opening section where The Goon Show is recreated on stage, with all the riotousness and anarchy of the original broadcasts.
The film simply wouldn't work if we didn't believe in the performance of the lead actor, and in this respect Geoffrey Rush is ideal. Although he has the aid of an army of wigs and vast quantities of make-up, he never lets the artifice dominate his characterisation of Sellers or the various roles therein. Rush goes through the same physical transformations of Sellers, moving over the course of the film from podgy to fighting fit and finally ghostly and frail. Most of all, he mimics Sellers' vocal performances very accurately, going beyond impersonation in almost every instance.
But rather than just have Sellers playing the various characters from his films, Hopkins and Rush contrive to have Sellers playing most of the people around him as well. At key moments, the camera will go 'back stage' and we watch the same characters as played by Sellers. This self-reflexive tactic is unnervingly effective, because it reaches the very core of Sellers' character: he was only happy or honest when he was being other people. Seeing Sellers as Stanley Kubrick in the taxi, we get a more open insight to Sellers than we would ever get from the horses' mouth, and seeing him re-dub the scene of his wife leaving him conveys his desperate need to be loved at any cost.
The other performances manage to match Rush in terms of quality, even if they don't all get the screen time they deserve. Emily Watson is very good as Sellers' first wife Anne Hayes, who struggles with his cruel streak and his distance from their children. Watson resists the urge to overegg the emotional torment, so that we are convinced that she still loves him even when his behaviour is at its most outrageous. John Lithgow is having a ball as Blake Edwards; even if he is occasionally larger-than-life, he taps into Sellers' ability to produce hatred and admiration often simultaneously. And Miriam Margolyes is a good choice for Sellers' mother, who dominates his early life and instigates his early attempts to get into film.
On top of this, the film has a number of fantasy moments which are particularly touching. The best of these is the dream sequence in Sellers' head as he is being revived from his near-fatal heart attack. We see the various characters from his film career up to that point - Clare Quilty, Dr. Strangelove, Fred Kite etc. - gathering round his hospital bed, before Sellers rises up on a huge bomb and hits a button on his heart blowing them all up. It's a moment of brief assertion from Sellers, showing his determination to be taken seriously and not be defined or controlled by the other versions of himself on screen.
Unfortunately, the problems with Peter Sellers eventually outweigh all the aspects of it which are successful. First off, despite its solid production values and fantastical ambitions, it remains very televisual. Doubtless the involvement of HBO, both financially and creatively, came with the very best intentions, and had the film not been released theatrically than this would not have been a problem. But on the big screen, Peter Sellers feels too compact and limited to cut the mustard, and the backstage sequences only reinforce the feeling that the world we are seeing on screen doesn't extend very far beyond it.
Tied up with this televisual nature is the problem of content versus length. Even with two hours to play with, there is far too much in Sellers' eventful life to fit around the constraints of a feature film. But rather than opt to tell the story in small segments, as a TV miniseries or whole season of shows, Hopkins and his team are forced to cherry-pick what they deem to be the most well-known or important bits.
While the film therefore serves as a good introduction to both Sellers and his body of work, those more familiar with either will get frustrated by just how much has been omitted, and by how quickly the film gallops through his life. Sellers claimed that his time on The Goon Show was the happiest time of his life, and yet we only get about five or ten minutes of it, including Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe turning up briefly in later scenes. The film never touches on his relationship with The Beatles, or much of his film work in between Dr. Strangelove and the later Pink Panthers. Most annoyingly, there is nothing in it about his last two marriages, or the precise attitude he had towards his children.
Because the film moves at such a pace, we find it hard to connect with Sellers as a person. This could, of course, be argued as the intention of the film - that Sellers shifted between characters so quickly that you could never see the real him. But in order for the film to work even as an introduction, we have to have some means of connection beyond his display of talent - and there are only fleeting opportunities in which this is possible. As with Mr. Nice, Bernard Rose's biopic of Howard Marks, there is a sense of information being intentionally withheld to such an extent that our ability to empathise begins to wane.
Had the film been reconfigured for a TV series, we would have got a far greater insight into both Sellers and the various characters which filtered in and out of his life. When we are introduced to Maurice Woodruff, the fraudulent fortune teller played by Stephen Fry, we expect him to get a lot of screen time because of the level of influence he quickly comes to hold. Instead he only gets three scenes and dies off-screen without a second's acknowledgement, so that we never get a proper sense of how greatly Sellers depended on him.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a film whose failure may not be entirely the fault of its creators. Certainly compared to Hopkins' previous offerings - Predator 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 - it is an undeniable work of genius. The problem may be the real Peter Sellers was simply too complex a man to be convincingly summarised in two short hours. In which case, the film is proof of its own failure, functioning as a workable introduction but being found wanting everywhere else.