Paul McGuigan/ UK USA/ 2017/ 105 mins
At Filmhouse Cinema from Fri 17 Nov 2017
Old film stars are a constant source of fascination for modern filmmakers. In recent years we’ve seen such films as My Week with Marilyn and Life, about James Dean. However, not everyone from this period of Hollywood has endured in such an iconic way and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool tells the late-life story of one of the less well-remembered actresses of the time.
In 1981 after collapsing in her dressing room before a provincial theatre performance of The Glass Menagerie, faded film siren Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) asks to stay with much younger former lover Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and his family in Liverpool. She says staying there will help her get better, but it’s obvious to everyone that something’s seriously wrong.
Bening and Bell are the most obvious highlights of McGuigan’s film. Based on a memoir by Turner, the film flips the gender dynamic of most May to December romances, and their relationship is entirely convincing thanks to two wonderful performances. Bening draws on her own bombshell past in the likes of The Grifters while being unafraid to show ageing and the vulnerability this brings to someone whose stock in trade has been beauty. Bell feels like he’s finally found a great adult role after excellent youthful work in Dear Wendy, Hallam Foe, and of course Billy Elliot, his childhood breakout nodded to in his entrance here. Paul and Gloria are entranced by each other, very much as equals and the two actors have palpable chemistry.
Their relationship is explored through flashbacks, achieved through lovely cinematic tricks like leaving one room in Liverpool in 1981 to enter another in California in 1979. It’s artfully done, without being tricksy. The beautiful artificial sunsets, sunny back-projected shots from within vehicle, and classy matte backgrounds evoke classic cinema nicely, and a scene where Gloria and Peter watch one of her old films brings to mind a kinder, fluffier Sunset Boulevard.
What derails the film slightly is the insistence of ramming home every plot point that was already clear from inferences and visual clues. When the couple have a hurtful spat, the reason for it is clear to us. Why then McGuigan feels the need to revisit the entire scene again later, from Gloria’s perspective, after the already clear revelation has been made is unclear. It’s not necessary to our understanding and feels like padding. If it was to increase our empathy with Gloria, it wasn’t needed. She’s perhaps slightly absurd; her ambition to play Shakespeare’s Juliet more ridiculous the older she becomes, but this is never portrayed as a stick with which to beat her character. Thematically it works, and Bening’s so good we shouldn’t need this hand-holding, and it weakens the structure of an otherwise fine work.
A film very much about clinging onto past glories, but one that never seeks to mock this understandable impulse, Film a Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a warm and cine-literate, if sentimental love story that will find an audience among those with a fondness for the old days of Hollywood and those with a romantic soul.