After spending some time in the U.S., Peter Sellers returned to England for what he termed a 'regional comedy' - what can be defined as a richly British vehicle that doesn't concern itself with broadening the palette for international consumption. That's certainly one reason why the Boulting brothers' comedies have endured; forty years old in 2003, "Heavens Above" remains a biting satire of religion, small town society, and the various prejudices that, on a uniquely subterranean level, keep the wrong kind of people in their 'proper' places.
Though he won a British Academy Award for his pivotal role in "I'm All Right Jack," it seems ironically familiar that this rare dramatic turn for Sellers - of a benevolent man who has no concept of the arms length consequences that have plagued his goodwill deeds - was ignored by the British Academy. Broad, physically distinctive performances are what solidified his reputation as a brilliant comedian, but Sellers could do magic in a well-rounded role that required a measured, understated performance.
In addition to casting American Brock Peters (fresh from his triumph in "To Kill A Mockingbird"), the Boultings assembled their familiar stock company of superb British thespians - Cecil Parker, Bernard Miles, Roy Kinnear, Kenneth Griffith, Irene Handl, and Ian Carmichael (with ludicrously exaggerated facial extremities) - for their near-perfect screenplay (based on a story by Malcolm Muggeridge) that remains a textbook example of lean storytelling which hits all the right dramatic and comedic marks. (Watch for the "Lolita" reference early in, as Sellers had just finished appearing in Stanley Kubrick's film.)
"Heavens Above!" looks gorgeous, and shows off Max Greene's BAFTA-nominated cinematography in a film that was originally trimmed to 105 minutes for its U.S. release. (There's some risqué dialogue and frank shots that the Hollywood censor didn't like at the time. Anchor Bay's transfer is made from the original British version.)
The mono soundtrack is standard, and provides an early film score by the great Richard Rodney Bennett, who composed a moving theme that grounds the film's more serious passages, and reflects the good intentions of Sellers' ultimately dangerous character.
An informative Peter Sellers biography covers essential career highlights, and includes a decent filmography. This Anchor Bay title is available alone or as part of The Peter Sellers collection, which includes "Carlton-Brown of the F.O.", "Heavens Above!", "Hoffman," "I'm All Right Jack," "The Smallest Show on Earth," and "Two-Way Stretch."
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan