“To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience”, said Peter Sellers once. Not so, say the makers of this charming biopic which traces the British comic’s turbulent rise from popular BBC radio performer to one of the world’s most gifted comedic actors through to his death at 54.
Yet this is not just a tour de force of the great man’s career – from The Goon Show to Dr Strangelove and the Pink Panther movies, as well as an abortive attempt to portray James Bond in the spoof Casino Royale. It is an intimate and honest portrayal of the private torments that prompted him to exclaim “I hate everything I do”.
It’s also an eye-opening account of how struggled to reconcile his relationship with his overbearing mother, women, his children, celebrity and his increasingly fragmented sense of self.
This is certainly no cosy, flattering account of Sellers, who ultimately ended up lonely and unloving – indeed sympathy lies as much with those trapped in the Peter Sellers’ circus as with his flawed and, some say, unfulfilled genius.
Geoffrey Rush excels in his role as the selfish yet charming Sellers who was an unlikely heart-throb – all black glasses and bawdy British humour – an early Austin Powers prototype perhaps? He’s surrounded by an equally stellar cast who bring alive his troubled personal life – marriage and children with Anne (Emily Watson) and Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron), flirtations with Sophia Loren and others, and his love/hate working relationships with Blake Edwards (John Lithgow) and Stanley Kubrick (Stanley Tucci).
Stephen Fry also appears as Maurice Woodruff, fortune teller to the stars, to whom Sellers turns to in his depression and loneliness – not knowing Woodruff is taking bungs from studio bosses to steer his client. Yet this practice inadvertently pushes Sellers in to the arms of Eckland.
Director Stephen Hopkins injects some much-needed fun and dramatic relief in to the film by inventively combining surreal filmmaking styles with colours and textures from the 50s to the 70s. He recreates scenes from Sellers’ movies and playfully toys with fantasy sequences and sight gags – we see hear the Sellers the public adored.
The film drags a little in the last third, but ultimately provides a thought-provoking glimpse of a desperate and lost man beneath the comic mask. Selfish and stubborn, churlish yet charming, a troubled comic genius and failed father and husband – Peter Sellers was many things but, as this biopic shows, never dull.