FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber, Vanessa Redgrave, Leanne Best. Directed by Paul McGuigan. 105 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language, sexual references and mature themes).
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a love story, based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name. In the late 1970s, Turner, then 26 years old, met Oscar-winning American actress Gloria Grahame, 28 years his senior, while she was performing in a play in London. Her star had faded since her glory days in the 40s and 50s, but for a semi-professional actor like Turner, she embodied Hollywood. Their whirlwind romance took them back and forth between England and the States, and the pair were inseparable for a while. In 1981, after their short but passionate romance had ended, Peter received a phone call from Manchester, saying that Gloria had taken ill backstage during another performance. He took her into his parents’ home, where they cared for her during her final weeks.
The screenplay, adapted by Matt Greenhalgh (the writer behind the excellent music biopics ‘Control’ and ‘Nowhere Boy’), moves back and forth in time, building towards two climaxes: the end of their relationship in 1980, and Gloria’s death in 1981. Given her diagnosis with terminal cancer, it’s no spoiler to say that the latter comes, though its inclusion is never exploitative. However, it’s the former that truly dazzles and remains the film’s defining sequence in my recollection thereof. Hammered home by J. Ralph’s stunningly emotive score, their separation is exquisitely felt, the reasons behind it unspooled with some carefully employed narrative trickery that asks a great deal of Bening, and has its faith repaid.
As befits an actress of Grahame’s calibre, Annette Bening delivers a dazzling turn. Bening plays their break-up for what it truly is in the context of the story – Grahame’s last great performance. At one point, she comments of a one-person stage show, ‘I love those things… you get to say all the lines’. It’s a playful summation of her character. Her put-togetherness, from her stylish outfits to her breathless voice, is immaculate. Her entire life is so performative, her persona so coquettish, that it’s difficult to see the emotions beneath it all. Yet Bening opens cracks just wide enough for us to peek Gloria through, the physical pain caused by her cancer, the depth of her feeling for Peter when they find themselves in bed together, her struggles with aging and falling from fame.
Across from such a star turn, Jamie Bell could have been entirely lost as Peter, but his performance is cleverly modulated to fit into the spaces that Bening leaves for him. It’s a much quieter role, as her grandstanding demands, but he is beautifully sensitive and utterly real. His love for Gloria and his heartbreak are sold through the pair’s indelible chemistry, such that one can truly see past the age difference. The supporting roles are also ably filled out, with Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham particularly solid as Peter’s understanding parents. Like the script itself, they bypass any fixation on the couple’s age difference. Instead, they see them as a couple deeply in love. Gloria and Peter give the other what they need – Peter lets Gloria feel young and beautiful again, while she exudes a lifestyle far removed from his working-class roots. Their motivations may not be entirely new, but the romance is deftly sketched and acutely felt.
Director Paul McGuigan’s best work, in this reviewer’s opinion, were his four stunning episodes of the BBC’s ‘Sherlock’, which hummed with cool intelligence, terrifically matched by ultra-stylish, highly stylised visuals. McGuigan brings some of the latter to ‘Film Stars’ – a series of flashbacks are cleverly introduced by scene transitions that blur the boundaries of time and space, the camera slowly panning in a 1981 hallway in Liverpool to settle on a door which opens into LAX months earlier. Yet the film is far warmer than ‘Sherlock’, which balanced the famous detective’s detachment with Dr Watson’s more emotional temperament. Here, with romance at the forefront, his style is far warmer, more openly passionate, and he draws the same passion from his cast.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a minor stakes film about a once major star. Despite the insignificance of its tale for all but those intimately involved, Bening and Bell imbue the romance with enough weight to make it an important story of love and loss. Grahame’s name and legacy may have lost their prominence in the decades since her stardom, but ‘Film Stars’ is a fitting tribute to the once great actress and her once great love.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 1.