Mark Kermode - Strange lives

As two men are raised from the dead, one will turn in his grave, writes Mark Kermode

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The ghosts of showbiz legends Cole Porter and Peter Sellers return to haunt our screens in a pair of lavish biopics, one surprisingly successful, the other drearily downbeat. Both films employ a familiar device that allows the protagonists to comment upon the dramatisation of their life stories, which are retold in the manner of the artists' own work. Yet only one of the films indicates that its director understands the material with which he is wrestling.

First, the good news. Despite having proved himself a redoubtable hack with such workmanlike offerings as Predator 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, director Stephen Hopkins ex-hibits a hitherto hidden flair in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Boasting an impressively mercurial central performance by Geoffrey Rush, this lively jaunt through the troubled comedian's convoluted life is at once wryly cine-literate and engagingly sympathetic. Set pieces from Sellers's celebrated on-screen environs are snappily recreated, from the war room of Dr Strangelove to the celestial lake of Being There, all evoked with an elegant ease that belies meticulous planning and genuinely artful cunning. Who ever suspected that Hopkins could be quite so deft?

Meanwhile, Rush slips in and out of character (Sellers even dons the guise of his own acquaintances in interposed "backstage" scenes) in a manner that captures the air of a man who was happy only when pretending to be other people. Wives and children come and go (Emily Watson and Charlize Theron providing feisty foils), and Miriam Margolyes fusses as Peter's domineering mom, but the central love-hate relationship is between Sellers and the Pink Panther director Blake Edwards, sparklingly lampooned by the terrific John Lithgow. It is here that Sellers's tortured relationship with his own success is most dramatically depicted, particularly in a wonderfully edgy scene in which Sellers castigates his director at a premiere for delivering yet another hit. Despite its small-screen origins (the film was co-financed by the American TV company HBO), this is an inventively cinematic experience that delivers far greater rewards than anyone had the right to expect.

Compare this unpredictable triumph with the unaccountable failure of De-Lovely, a lumpen, thudding mess that manages, against all the odds, to turn Cole Porter's life story into a musical bore. Things start badly as a latex-encrusted Kevin Kline plays Porter awkwardly watching a play of his life directed by an equally uncomfortable Jonathan Pryce. While such a clunky device may just have worked in the theatre, here one is merely reminded of the gag from Educating Rita about solving the staging problems of Ibsen by "doing it on the radio".

What ensues is two hours of gross luvvy indulgence as the massed glitterati from the world of film and pop proceed to make several pigs' ears out of the silk purses of Porter's back catalogue. Everywhere you look, there's a mugging celebrity (Elvis Costello, Robbie Williams, Alanis Morissette) strangling another favourite while everyone else rushes around in a frenetic orgy of ever-changing clothes, hair, accents and facial wrinkles. The last 40 minutes are a mawkish roundelay of dragged-out death scenes, but frankly I'd lost the will to live the moment Mick Hucknall popped up in the middle of the second act. "Much of De-Lovely is true," says director Irwin Winkler, "and some of it is imagined. But it is all faithful to the spirit of Cole Porter." Bollocks - anyone with the sprightly wit to write "Night and Day" and "Let's Misbehave" would have hated this overcooked, eggy tosh.

When a movie is sold as being "from the makers of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels", one is braced for another embarrassing debacle in which a bunch of posh Brits shout "Oi" and "faack" a lot while unconvincingly waving "shooters" in the air and sticking the "readies" in the boot before getting done "bang to rights, you slaaaag". Mercifully, Layer Cake rises high above such grisly expectations, thanks largely to the presence of Daniel Craig as the leading man, who brings a ringing note of low-key credibility to the otherwise familiar home-grown gangster rap. Craig plays a nameless drug dealer on the brink of retirement who is strong-armed by Kenneth Cranham's caricaturedly sweary crime boss into one last ill-gotten venture. Eschewing the vacuous visual flash of Guy Ritchie's saleable debut, the Lock, Stock producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn wisely allows his camera to linger upon Craig's expressive face, thereby conjuring the illusion of substance. It's not Get Carter, and it tries way too hard to woo the lucrative lads'-mag market. But Layer Cake does have a certain cynical charm notably lacking from many recent British crime flicks, and provides another handsome showcase for Craig's versatile charms.