'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'
Sweet and so strange it had to be true, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ gives the celebrities-playing-celebrities bio subgenre a good name. It helps that this isn’t a predictable rise and fall yarn. It’s a distinctly sad, unique, funny, and moving little tale about a star past her prime and an odd love that resonated.
The famous character in question is Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (‘The Bad and the Beautiful’) and the performer playing her is Annette Bening, who ought to have an Oscar of her own. The protagonist is Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a 28-year-old struggling actor who somehow ended up being neighbors with Grahame at a boarding house. Enamored and inspired by her success, Peter pursued her and they fell in love and then out of it, as is the way. Years later, Peter received a sudden call from Grahame announcing that she had cancer and hoped to move in with Peter and his family to recover. It doesn’t take much effort to work out how that ended, but the pleasure is all in the presentation and details.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is an odd and moving story about a woman who succeeded wildly at times, but mostly got stuck with dumb luck. The May/December romance that she shared with the young man was odd and salacious, but also rather sweet and pure. They both suited each other’s needs; it just couldn’t last. Director Paul McGuigan (‘Lucky Number Slevin’) lets it play out with a certain level of playful humor beneath the romance and regret. The performances make it shine, with Jamie Bell at his sweetest and most human since ‘Billy Elliot’. Annette Bening is glorious as Grahame, elevating the movie in every scene. She approaches the character with a playful reverence and pained depth. There are times when she silently says more about the woman with her face than the script could ever dare. She’s clearly found something to latch onto in this cheekily funny yet tragic woman and delivers a performance equally enthralling and heartbreaking.
For the most part, Bening is able to carry the movie, supported by lush period visuals and a cast of game British character actors. However, no matter how wonderful she is or how warm and believable the relationship she shares with Bell’s character, the movie often slips into melodrama. McGuigan pushes too hard to move audiences in ways that can feel battering, and something about the grand arc he plays out rings false despite the fact that the story and performances ring so true. That’s a shame, but at least the film has enough strong scenes. This isn’t a ‘My Week with Marilyn’ situation where stunt-casting is overwhelmed by lazy storytelling. It’s just that the peaks of the film are so high, it’s tough to watch it crash to earth so frequently.