Many fine crime novels (and other novels!) focus on characters who self-destruct, in one way or another. The way in which self-destructive impulses are charted often gives a clear idea of a writer’s quality. I think, for instance, of Ruth Rendell’s brilliant depiction of the illiterate Eunice Parchman in that fine book A Judgment in Stone.
I’ve just watched a movie which portrays a real-life character with a self-destructive impulse quite brilliantly. This was The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Geoffrey Rush plays Sellers superbly – a stunning performance from an actor previously unknown to me. I’ve always been a fan of Sellers, and enjoyed a good many of his movies, even though he made a few poor ones along the way, and this film also has a nostalgic edge.
But it is a dark film. Sellers is portrayed as a tormented genius, someone who had a gift for inhabiting other characters, but whose own personality was somehow hollow. His rages, obsessive perfectionism, affairs and drug taking are all presented unsentimentally, and I found some of the scenes not only sad, but troubling. How many liberties was taken with the precise facts, not least to avoid libelling the living, I don't know.
I’m writing at the moment about a character who self-destructs, so this film had an added level of interest for me. But what really matters is that it is a rather cleverly done film, which held my attention from start (like The Damned United, it opens with Tom Jones singing ‘What’s New Pussycat?’) to finish. Rush’s excellence, by the way, is supported by the rest of the cast, including the beautiful Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland, Sellers’ second wife. Recommended, even if you aren’t really a Sellers fan.