Of all the things that I love about cinema, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool possessed two right off the bat. The first is my fondness for any quirky or interesting true story brought to the big screen, and the second is my fondness for film titles with more than three words! With six words to its name and a premise that seemed incredibly intriguing, I hoped that the latest directorial effort from Paul McGuigan would impress me beyond these surface level aspects.
The film tells the story of the final years of golden age Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame’s life. Once the toast of the town, even an Oscar winner back in 1952, Gloria (played by Annette Bening) finds herself in the unforgiving twilight of her career, and the narrative switches back and forth between the late seventies, detailing a whirlwind romance she enjoyed with a much younger British actor named Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and the early eighties, when she is stricken with illness and turns once again to Peter and his family for the care that she needs.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is equal parts charming, bittersweet, humorous and poignant, but most importantly it is all parts excellent. Anyone who knows even a little about the life and times of Gloria Grahame will recognise that this particular narrative and summation verges on the ‘sanitised’ side, but that doesn’t stop the picture from being a triumph in its own, separated right. The story covers so many different angles and themes, from the value and treatment of ageing actresses, to various family dynamics, to illness and death, and most importantly to the theme of romantic relationships with large age gaps that is treated entirely differently here than almost anywhere else I have seen. Not only is it refreshing to see the traditional cinematic gender roles reversed in terms of an older woman romancing a younger man, but it is also refreshing to see barely a hint of the boring ‘cougar’ attitude. The relationship between Gloria and Peter isn’t played for laughs, but rather for genuine examination of a dynamic that is so often portrayed cheaply in lesser films, or as something of a shock in the plot. There is so much more to the picture that just a salacious story of an affair between a woman approaching sixty and man in his twenties, and the sincerity with which the central relationship is handled is really wonderful to see.
Thanks to its mixture of American acting royalty and a quintessential ‘British film’ sensibility, the picture feels completely down to earth and relatable, yet it possesses that spark of Hollywood magic that I always fall for in a movie. From what I know about Gloria Grahame, this film probably shouldn’t be taken as a definitive character study, but seeing as the original source material is the memoir of Peter Turner himself, it would be fair to say that the film represents a snippet, perhaps a biased snippet, of a fleeting few years. After all, it’s not the Gloria Grahame story per se, it’s the Gloria and Peter story, and what a tender, dramatic, endearing, heartfelt one it is.
An interesting enough premise to begin with, the heart and emotion of the film is brought to dazzling life by two perfect performances in the lead roles. Jamie Bell excels as Peter Turner, an ordinary young man who finds himself in a distinctly extraordinary situation, both in his initial role as lover and subsequent role as care giver. Bell plays the role with such sincerity that you can’t help but fall for him. Considering the calibre of partner he has on screen, the actor more than holds his own delivers a really memorable performance.
Much of the same can be said for Annette Bening, who is sensational as Gloria Grahame. There is a certain freedom in portraying a real life character who may not be so universally known as, for example, a Marilyn Monroe or a Jackie Kennedy, and Bening does an excellent job at borrowing from Grahame’s essence whilst also adding her own flair for the sake of the character. There aren’t really enough superlatives to describe the beauty of her performance, nuanced, charming, at times stoic yet always vulnerable. It may not be the Gloria Grahame that actually existed, but it’s a Gloria Grahame that is perfect for the purposes of cinematic story telling. Together, Bening and Bell are electric. Their chemistry is completely authentic, and the sincerity with which they both operate makes the love story meaningful and tender when in the wrong hands it could so easily have felt different. Special mention too for Julie Walters as Peter’s mother Bella, who brings another element of star quality to the proceedings.
Overall, Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is an absolute gem of a movie. Some films are a slog to analyse and write about, but this was just as pleasurable to look back on as it was to watch. Already set to be one of the most underrated films of the year, hopefully it can pick up a few high profile acting nominations along the way. A perfect watch for anyone with a passion for old Hollywood, anyone who enjoys an unconventional but meaningful love story, anyone who loves the sensibility of British filmmaking. You know what, I’ll just leave it at anyone full stop, I absolutely loved it.