Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Characters who self-destruct


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.

12 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for this review. I've always found it troubling on a personal level, but fascinating as a reader and writer, to think about characters who self-destruct. The impulse in some people that drives them to the brink like that is haunting. I liked your Ruth Rendell example very much, and I'm thinking also of the character of Lomas in your story, 24 Hours From Tulsa. Sellers, too, really did carry within him the seeds of his own destruction, and considering his talent, that is truly sad.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Martin,

Haven't seen the movie but I will.

What would you consider some of the finer crime novels that focus on characters who self-destruct?

Stephen

Vanda Symon said...

That looks like a must see film - I've always been fond of Peter Sellers, and Geoffrey Rush is a fine actor, so I'd go along just to see him in action.

Deb said...

I haven't seen this particular movie, but Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for the movie "Shine" a few years ago--and I believe he may have won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sellers.

I strongly recommend Roger Lewis's book THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS--it sounds as if it might have been the basis for the movie you saw. Sellers was a very trying individual, discarding wives, children, lovers, friends, and colleagues along the way. If you watch the "Pink Panther" movies closely, you realize that half the time Sellers wasn't even there (stunt doubles and clever editing were used to disguise the fact that on many days Sellers sat sulking in his dressing room and never showed up on the set). A brilliant actor, but undoubtedly a self-destructive one.

Dorte H said...

I have not seen the Sellers film, but Judgment in Stone is such a memorable story! I am truly terrible at remembering first lines, plots, killers etc, but I remember that one vividly.

I reviewed a really fine book today, by the way, and I think I will also be able to remember the final twist of that one ;)

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, how good of you to mention Lomas. You know, I'd really forgotten about him, but he does indeed fit this bill. Thanks, as ever.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Stephen. Another good one, Bones and Silence, features a person who self destructs. But Reg Hill keeps you guessing about their identity.

Martin Edwards said...

Vanda, yes, he really is gifted.

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, you are right, the film was based on the book - not sure how closely.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte - yes, it's a great first line.
And I'm delighted you liked YP!

Paul D. Brazill said...

Never seen it but it sounds good.

Xavier said...

Rush also won an Emmy for his performance as Sellers.