Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

16 November 2017

Saga film critic David Gritten applauds this May-December romance, featuring two fine lead performances.

This is one of the least likely love stories you’ll ever see on screen – between the once-famous Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, and a struggling young British actor named Peter Turner, who was 28 years younger. They met in 1979, when she was 55, her days as a sultry, sensuous leading lady long past, and she was vainly trying for a comeback on the British stage.

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On the face of it, the film might be a tough sell. It may sound faintly like the successful My Life With Marilyn – but Gloria Grahame’s posthumous fame has not endured in the same way as Marilyn Monroe’s.

Yet there are grounds for believing that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool might be a real crowd-pleaser, despite its oddly awkward, uninviting title.  It can boast two massively appealing lead performances – from Annette Bening as Gloria and Jamie Bell as Peter.

Both of them deliver some of their best work on screen to date, and that’s saying a lot about the illustrious Bening, who has graced many a substantial film in her time. As for Jamie Bell, this is far and away his finest moment on screen since the great role that shot him to fame – Billy Elliot, all of 17 years ago.

These two characters are chalk and cheese: Bening’s Gloria, while sexy and seductive, is moody, complex and often tempestuous, while Peter is an innocent, frankly out of his depth in this relationship, yet utterly devoted to her. When she falls ill, he and his parents take her in and she lives with them in their modest terraced Liverpool home – a far cry from Hollywood glamour.

It’s worth noting at this point that Peter’s kindly but sharp-tongued mother is played by Julie Walters, and it’s sheer pleasure to see her on screen opposite Jamie Bell again; she, of course, was young Billy Elliot’s dance teacher. And one scene, showing Peter gyrating to a disco tune, proves that Bell has lost none of his dancing skills.

Appealing as Peter may be, Gloria Grahame gives Bening a more substantial character. As her illness gathers pace, she is torn between trying to prove she still has what it takes professionally, and giving in to her failing health. Some of the later scenes in the film are genuinely moving; they unapologetically make a play for the audience’s tear ducts.

Director Paul McGuigan keeps the story moving along at an appropriate pace and cannily deploys some distinguished names in small roles – notably Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s haughty, theatrical mother and Frances Barber as the film star’s disaffected sister.

This is a likable, good-natured work, and it might well receive respect not only from audiences but also from the film industry itself. It would be no surprise if Bening and Bell found themselves featuring in the race for awards early next year. 

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