Casual fans who primarily know Peter Sellers from the Pink Panther movies may think his penultimate film, Being There (1979), represents Sellers’ only significant dramatic work, but of course that’s not the case—interspersed between his many comedies are a handful of serious films, though none captured the public’s attention the way Being There did. Among the actor’s lesser-known dramas is the UK production The Optimists of Nine Elms, released stateside with the abbreviated title The Optimists. Written and directed by Anthony Simmons, who based the script on his own novel and reportedly envisioned the movie as a starring vehicle for Buster Keaton, The Optimists of Nine Elms tells the bittersweet story of an ex-vaudeville performer, now eking out a sketchy living as a street performer. He befriends two latchkey kids, broadening their horizons by showing them more of London than the working-class slum where they live. He also teaches them life lessons of a sort, because he’s so disheartened with people that he directs all of his affection toward a scruffy pet: “You can forget all about humans,” he says. “You might as well take poison. But a dog’ll always be your friend.”
As this remark suggests, The Optimists of Nine Elms is somewhat ironically titled. Yet because the movie is driven by twee musical scoring, features song-and-dance interludes, and ends on a sentimental note, it’s as if Simmons envisioned the movie as uplifting. (There’s a lot more Chaplin than Keaton in the film’s DNA.) Some will find the picture touching, but others will regard The Optimists of Nine Elms as dreary and dull.
Sam (Sellers) lives in a hovel cluttered with broken-down showbiz paraphernalia. Every day, he treks to a busy street corner, puts on a flashy costume, and sings old-timey songs while his trained dog bops around with a cup for tips. Meanwhile, teenaged Liz (Donna Mullane) and her younger brother, Mark (John Chaffey), live nearby, mostly ignored by their dad, who works long hours, and their mom, who is preoccupied with housework. The kids stumble across Sam one day and become fascinated, eventually joining him on his daily outings. He’s kind some days and prickly on others, but he sees how badly the kids want a dog of their own and tries to help. In one of the film’s stranger scenes, he also takes the kids on a field trip to a pet cemetery. Fun! Sellers is okay here, wearing a prosthetic nose as he wobbles between lively and sullen; some viewers will find the spectacle of Sellers singing a toe-tapping version of “This Old Man” more interesting than others. As for the movie around him, it’s mostly quite gloomy, thanks to grimy locations and Mullane’s perpetually sour facial expressions, although the music—credited to Lionel Bart and the Beatles’ main man, George Martin—strives mightily to inject happiness.
The Optimists of Nine Elms: FUNKY