Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Matt Greenhalgh based on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by Peter Turner
Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber, Leanne Best
One might disagree with this assertion, but in today’s ever-expanding, global cinema, there are few stars in the traditional Hollywood-sense; someone who when you saw them on the screen, the camera just absolutely embraces them, heightening our awareness of genuine talent. Now, I haven’t seen one iota of Gloria Grahame’s oeuvre, but based on the pre-release buzz, she was a starlet for the ages.
It is with a sense of remorse that I begin my journey of absorbing her body of work with a biography of her last years with us. Matt Greenhalgh’s script, based on Peter Turner’s biography of the same name goes to lengths to demonstrate just how steadfast Mr. Grahame was at trying to hide her weakened condition. Annette Bening plays the famous star, and she radiates the dwindling beauty. Jamie Bell plays Peter Turner, a reserved, yet passionate man. He is able to stand strongly next to Ms. Bening; neither of them overshadow the other.
Their love affair is at the center of the story as they meet during rehearsals for her first UK performance in 1978. She tries to avoid dealing with her declining health in Liverpool, instead allowing Mr. Turner to seduce her. Mr. McGuigan uses many classic filming techniques, especially rear projection, to build out the environment of the late 1970’s. Key to this is the Turner’s home in Liverpool where Peter convinces his family to take in Ms. Grahame, not realizing the severity of her condition. The story makes clear that the family is aware of their affair. In fact, Bella Turner (Julie Walters) goes out of her way to treat Ms. Grahame like she’s family.
The story flashes back to Ms. Grahame’s life in California, showing the struggles she faced growing up. The sentimentality of these flashbacks draw attention away from Ms. Bening’s performance, a byproduct of the script reaching too far into why she struggled so much. If this were more about her life rather than her affair with Mr. Turner, I certainly would have been more interested in her backstory.
Mr. McGuigan certainly created a grand image of Ms. Grahame and the era in which the film is set in. Seeing elegance of modern London set against the drab motif in Liverpool was a nice juxtaposition. All of this, however, is nothing much without Ms. Bening and Mr. Bell inhabiting their roles. The story knows this too, and while their performances are the standout, the story doesn’t really serve them in the same, favorable way.
2 out of 4 stars