Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Jamie Bell, Leanne Best, Annette Bening, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham.
Running Time: 106 mins
Release Date: 17/11/2017
It’s a tale as old as time: two people meet, fall in love and enter into a relationship with one another- they go through ups, they go through downs. What’s unusual about FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL is that the two people in question are a struggling young Liverpudlian Actor, Peter Turner (JAMIE BELL) and an ageing Oscar-winning actress 30 years his senior, the once-fabulous Gloria Grahame (ANNETTE BENING). Though it seems a fanciful tale the film is adapted from Turner’s memoir of the same name and is a moving depiction of an unconventional relationship.
The film begins at the end when Grahame falls ill just as she’s preparing to go on stage. In Liverpool, Turner receives a phone call saying ‘his Gloria’ is not well and would like to come and stay with him at his family home. As she convalesces over the next few days, Peter walks through the house and seemingly through time thanks to Urszula Pontikos’ marvellous BIRDMAN like cinematography- the audience are transported seamlessly from scene to scene, from present to past, from after the relationship ended to before it began. And it did begin, charmingly, in a boarding house in North London where Grahame and Turner both happened to be staying. Whilst bonding over their mutual love of acting, the pair strike up a friendship after an impromptu dance together (a treat to see JAMIE BELL dance on screen again) and an afternoon at a London pub.
Bening and Bell excel anyway but never more so than when sharing a scene with smaller speaking parts- the pub landlord in one scene does an exceedingly hammy, faux-whispered “That’s Gloria Grahame, she was a big movie star she was!” Such exposition is sadly necessary: Gloria Grahame is neither a big name these days, nor has she reached icon status. In other movie star biopics, 2011’s MY WEEK WITH MARILYN for example, there was no need for side characters to cluck and coo over how famous she was. By contrast, Grahame’s relative anonymity in comparison to the world’s most famous blonde is a blessing for Bening as it gives her total freedom to interpret the character as she wishes. It’s a trade-off: the pantomime from lesser characters is annoying but in playing a lesser known star, Bening is unconfined by the need to adhere to public perception and gives a nuanced performance that will surely garner her some nominations come awards season.
So too will Jamie Bell, who has matured into an assured yet subtle actor since his early dancing days; he plays Peter with sincerity and without a hint of sleaze. It’s possible that in another film about a younger up-and-coming man/ older already-famous woman relationship there would be a suggestion that he is using her to get ahead- this is not that film but given it’s based on Turner’s own account of the relationship perhaps this is unsurprising. Either way, it’s refreshing that in a relationship with such an age gap, Turner is never forced to defend or make excuses for his attraction to Grahame- he simply adores her. Grahame’s devotion to Turner is less obvious- but certainly implied by the fact he’s the first person she thinks of when she falls ill.
JULIE WALTERS puts in a reliable turn as Peter’s mother* and is flanked by a solid familial cast in KENNETH CRANHAM and STEPHEN GRAHAME Peter’s father and brother respectively. Whilst some suspension of disbelief is required to buy into the idea that Peter and his brother are in any way related (Joe Turner looks exactly as you might expect a Liverpudlian man in the eighties to look, whilst Bell’s Peter is a smooth dancing Adonis, complete with six-pack) – as a whole the family scenes are well executed.
Make no mistake, this is a by-the-book weepie- but with strong leads, even stronger chemistry between said leads, heaps of compassion, and a pleasingly bizarre mix of Old Hollywood and Liverpool it would be a mistake to dismiss it as the usual manipulative tear-jerker fare. Much like Gloria Grahame herself, this is a film that is multi-layered and complicated, not always likeable but always watchable- and overall, pretty fabulous.
*Wouldn’t it be great to see her play somebody truly despicable instead of another well- meaning maternal figure? If I were ever to make a movie, it would be a live action version of Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” starring Julie Walters and that other brilliant, much-loved, so-nice-it-hurts actor aka Tom Hanks.