D: Paul McGuigan / 105m
Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, Leanne Best
In London in 1979, aspiring young actor Peter Turner (Bell) met Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Bening). Although theirs was an unlikely friendship (at first), the pair soon found themselves in a romantic relationship, one that saw Grahame being introduced to Turner’s family – mum Bella (Walters), dad Joe (Cranham), and brother Joe Jr (Graham) – and in turn, Turner travelling to the US and meeting Grahame’s mother, Jean (Redgrave), and her sister, Joy (Barber). But it wasn’t long before their relationship foundered, and Turner returned home to continue his acting career. Two years later, while appearing in a production of The Glass Menagerie in the UK, Grahame was taken ill, but instead of staying in hospital, she contacted Turner and asked to stay at his family’s home in Liverpool. Despite her assertions that her illness was nothing serious, Grahame was actually suffering from cancer, but she didn’t want anyone to know, and made Turner swear not to tell anyone, not even her family. In the days that followed, Grahame’s health worsened, and Turner found it increasingly difficult to look after her, and in the end, the secrecy she wanted couldn’t be maintained…
Based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a tragic tale given muted relevance by the nature of its origins and its refusal to show just why Grahame was, during the early Fifties at least, such a big deal. Thanks to Matt Greenhalgh’s script, which focuses more on Turner than it does Grahame, the movie makes pointed comments about Grahame the woman – her four marriages (one of them to her stepson from her second marriage), her fading career, her frightened refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of having cancer – while giving audiences little in the way of examples as to why she became a star (a short clip from Naked Alibi (1954) doesn’t really cut it). Bening is superb in the role, and captures Grahame’s carefree nature and nagging insecurities with impressive precision, but there’s also a sense that she’s working extra hard to create such a telling portrayal, almost as if she’s filling in the blanks in the script. As the movie’s deus ex machina, she’s an essential component, but this is about Turner’s relationship with Grahame, not the other way round, and how her illness affects him.
The problem with this is that Turner isn’t that well-developed a character either. What’s missing is the spark that brought them together in the first place, because personable though he is, Turner remains something of a cipher, a young man swept up by the glamour surrounding Grahame and her fame, and a little too easily for comfort. Motives are missing on both sides, and again Greenhalgh’s script isn’t interested in exploring these issues, and McGuigan seems content to follow the dictates of the script. Thankfully, Bell is just as good as Bening in overcoming the drawbacks inherent in the script, and gives a nuanced, detailed performance that impresses as much as his co-star’s. Elsewhere, the movie is an odd combination of visual styles, with the scenes set in London and Liverpool having a naturalistic, somewhat dour look to them, while the scenes set in California and New York are bright, over-saturated, and almost rose-tinted in their representation. Maybe this is intended to reflect Turner’s memories of those visits, but the US scenes are jarring and feel like they should belong in another movie (or at least a different cut of this one). In the end, and no matter how much the two storylines are intriguingly intertwined, this is one tragic romance that doesn’t have the impact it should have.
Rating: 6/10 – despite two magnificent central performances, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool isn’t as persuasive or emotionally devastating as it wants to be; there’s a distance here that stops the viewer from becoming too involved, and though it’s handsomely mounted and shot, it never seems to be aiming for anything other than perfectly acceptable.