During the 1950s, Peter Sellers (Geoffrey Rush) was famous on British radio for his comic roles in The Goon Show, but although he had a relatively happy home life with his wife Anne (Emily Watson) and their two young children, he wanted more out of his career. He would go to auditions for film roles and be turned down for not looking the part, but his mother Peg (Miriam Margolyes) drove him on, not wanting Peter to be what she considered to be a failure like his father (Peter Vaughan). So one day he turned up for an audition completely in character and fooled the casting agent, leading to an ever-growing career in the movies. But it still wasn't enough for him and he was never truly satisfied...
What is it about comedians that makes us want to see the tears behind the laughter? The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from the book by Roger Lewis, contents itself to be a gossipy expose of the dark side of its subject and the emptiness in his personality, but has an excellent central performance at its heart from the reliable Rush, who manages to be sympathetic towards Sellers without entirely forgiving him his cruelties. A host of recognisable faces are employed to play the people in his life (despite the title, we never see him die), giving the film a sense of wheeling on its stars to do their turn and wheeling them off again before we have the chance to know them.
Episodic it may be, but it is assembled with great style by director Stephen Hopkins and his team of costume designers, set designers and makeup artists (who do a particularly good job). Rush himself doesn't attempt an impression of Sellers, instead putting on an English accent and letting his appearance do the work of convincing us that he is who he says he is and even dressing up as other characters for breaking-the-fourth-wall monologues. If this film is to be believed, it was Peg who made Sellers the man he was, insecure, terminally unsatisfied and capricious. Once he starts to hit the big time, he meets Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino) to star in a movie with her and is instantly struck by her beauty - so struck that he becomes obsessed with her, unwillingly to accept that his feelings are not mutual.
And so it is that Sellers divorces the long-suffering Anne, tells his children that he still loves them but loves Loren more, and has to end up shagging Loren's stand-in in the back of his car because the object of his desire is just not interested. Anne sees through him to the little boy playing games he really is, rather than the hollow vessel he believes he is, but without her steady influence all Sellers has is his mother (who didn't tell him that his father was close to death in hospital lest it harm his career) and a new advisor, spiritualist Maurice Woodruff (Stephen Fry) whose invented guidance (the film gives him very short shrift) he grows dependent upon. It is Woodruff who tells him to watch out for a person with the intials B.E.
Woodruff meant Blake Edwards (John Lithgow), the director of The Pink Panther, the film that made Sellers a global star, but Sellers thought the initials must belong to Swedish starlet Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron), who he promptly married. Unhappiness predictably follows, with Sellers' heart giving him trouble. The novelty value of the careful recreations of the time is strong, as is identifying the personalities portrayed, but simply dressing up Rush as Dr Strangelove doesn't necessarily mean that he's going to be as funny as Sellers when he goes into the routines. Indeed, there are very few laughs to be had as the insensitivities of Sellers make him a hard man to warm to, despite Rush's charm offensive. Exquisitely framed, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers leaves you feeling that sometimes it's best that you don't know the story behind the stars. Music by Richard Hartley.