Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul McGuigan
Stars: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber.
This classy British feature recounts the final days of 50s movie star Gloria Grahame, a star of noir films like The Big Heat, who died at the age of 57 in 1981. She won an Oscar in 1952 for her performance in The Bad And The Beautiful opposite Kirk Douglas. But her career stalled in the mid-50s, amid a series of scandals and turbulent affairs with Hollywood players, and she found herself doing lots of guest star roles on television series.
Eventually she left Hollywood behind and moved to Liverpool in the late 70s, where she appeared on stage. It was there that the faded star met Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, from Billy Elliott, etc), a young aspiring actor, in a boarding house in Primrose Hill that they shared. When he first met her, Peter didn’t know who Gloria was. The two had a brief but passionate love affair. After the pair moved to New York, jealousy, secrets and misunderstandings shaped the relationship, which soon fell apart. Peter moved back to Liverpool.
In 1981, the ailing Grahame returned to Liverpool to appear in a theatre production of The Glass Menagerie. But after collapsing in her hotel she reached out to her former lover Peter. He moved her into his modest family home in Liverpool where he and his compassionate mother Bella (Julie Walters) looked after her when she refused medical treatment. Through a series of extended flashbacks we learn about her relationship with Turner, who was thirty years her junior.
The bittersweet Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is based on Turner’s own memoir written in 1986 which recounted his affair with the glamourous actress and her final days. It is a long gestating project that has taken some two decades to bring to the screen. The screenplay has been written by Matt Greenhalgh (Control, etc) and is by turns moving and upbeat and also heartbreaking. The film is not a straight, traditional biopic and we don’t learn much about Grahame’s life or career. This is more of a May/December love story, full of love and loss and pain. It is also a little too sentimental and mawkish, but it also includes some touches of humour.
Annette Bening (The Kids Are Alright, Twentieth Century Women, etc) has delivered some great performances, but this is one of the juiciest roles of her career. She is superb as the self-deluded Grahame even though she bears little resemblance to the actress, but she captures her sultry, wispy voice, but also her sense of vulnerability, emotional fragility and insecurity, her deteriorating health, and her fear of being alone at the end. She seems to empathise with the character and her struggles.
Bell is also good as Turner and delivers a strong and convincing and mature performance. This is one of his best performances as he explores a range of complicated feelings and emotions. He more than holds his own against the veteran Oscar nominated actress. He and Bening share a palpable sexual chemistry. He is reunited with his Billy Elliott co-star Walters here, and the two do establish a wonderful dynamic. Vanessa Redgrave has a small role here as Grahame’s mother, while Frances Barber spits venom as Grahame’s bitter sister.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is something of a change of pace for director Paul McGuigan (The Wrong Man, The Acid House, etc), who suffuses the material with a powerful sense of nostalgia. It is also a claustrophobic film as most of the action takes place inside Peter’s house or hotel rooms. Polish cinematographer Urzula Pontikos evokes both the glamour of Hollywood and the seediness of working class Liverpool, and moves seamlessly between the present and the memories of the past.