Lauded for Annette Bening’s performance as the fading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, the play-like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool benefits more from a career-best performance by Billy Elliott’s Jamie Bell as her former lover Peter Turner.
Adapted from Turner’s memoir about the relationship, the film follows Turner’s reflections on their relationship as he looks after her in her dying days.
When Grahame collapses backstage at a performance of The Glass Menagerie, Turner is called – and despite his initial reticence, he brings Grahame back to his Liverpool home – wonderfully populated by Julie Walter’s mother.
As the end grows nearer for Grahame, Turner is conflicted by the bittersweet recollections – and the audience is regaled with them, taken to dizzying highs before the ebb of the crushing lows swallows all.
Opening with old style film credits, as the celluloid ripples through shutters, the film’s very much got the feel of a two-hander play and shifts between scenes are beautifully handled as they blend into each other.
It’s a biopic at heart, and while there is an argument to be made that little happens and the characters are kept at their most basic, there’s also enough to be said about the arc that Bening imbues Grahame with in her twilight years and the range of emotions that Bell conveys as Turner.
As the film shifts into conventional weepie territory at the end, the tour de forces are slightly dulled by the narrative necessities and conflicts that play out.
But what transpires prior to this, is bested by a quiet intensity of Bell’s portrayal as his part in a doomed relationship. It’s a turn that gives Bell one of his chances to provide an extremely strong turn – and he doesn’t remotely disappoint.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is never better than when it follows the giddy highs of their relationship – there’s more than enough here to give you a feeling of the time (particularly thanks to the use of actual Grahame footage).
There are tart moments in the dialogue which greatly help the melancholy feel of the film and give Bening’s 50s screen siren a hint of sadness.
But in the final stretch, the film forsakes actions in favour of words, leading to the feeling of exposition in among the love story that drags the fresher approach of an older relationship down a notch.
Ultimately, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is powered by Bell’s performance; it may be his co-star’s twilight luvvie turn which is getting the adulation, but Bell’s commitment and depth to the role guarantees the film its emotional core throughout.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Cast: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Paul McGuigan