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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) starring Annette Bening

A real-life May-to-December romance

This biopic is based on the real-life relationship which took place between Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner and erstwhile Hollywood star Gloria Grahame between the late 1970s and early 1980s. It starts off as Peter’s family agrees to take the actress into their Liverpool home when she insists that it is the best way for her to recuperate from an illness which afflicts her. She claims she has serious problems with “gas” (the American for indigestion) but Peter knows deep down that it is something more serious.

The film alternates between Peter and his immediate family (his mother Bella played by Julie Walters, father Joe played by Kenneth Cranham and brother Joe Jr. played by Stephen Graham) fretting and arguing about how to deal with the presence of this legendary but clearly severely ill actress staying in their spare room, and flashbacks to the whirlwind May-to-December romance between the pair.

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A look at a remarkable screen actress

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is one of just two non-Bond movies to have been made by Eon Productions during their 56-year history. When the company (currently led by Cubby Broccoli’s daughter Barbara) breaks with such an iconic and financially lucrative tradition it imposes a considerable weight of expectation on the production.

Oscar-winning 1940s and 50s screen siren Gloria Grahame was certainly a remarkable actress. It is therefore fitting that she’s so well-rendered (albeit in her twilight years) by actress Annette Bening, who not only looks uncannily similar to her but perfectly captures a blend of both the former’s brassy, sultry screen persona and the residual sense of deep despair she would have been feeling as a result of both her illness and the fact that her glory days were clearly far behind her. It would be surprising if Bening herself isn’t in line for an Oscar come awards season early next year.

While Jamie Bell isn’t as showy as Bening is he still turns in a fine piece of work as a young man who, while not entirely naive, is clearly as much in awe of her as he is in love with her. He teeters between cockiness and sensitivity without quite having the experience or emotional control to handle either her complexities or the unchecked boundlessness of his feelings for her. His chemistry with Bening is sparkling and enables us to fully believe in their relationship despite the evident age gap. Julie Walters is also dependably great as a strong but sympathetic mother who clearly cares deeply for both Peter and Gloria.

Too grindingly downbeat for its own good

Unfortunately, while it is well-acted, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool finds wanting as a film. The early sections which introduce the characters and the period renderings of late-1970s England are the best. The outrageous wallpaper, beloved (and less beloved) period cars such as the Ford Capri and rows of terraced houses capture the idiosyncrasies of the period down to a tee. A date to see Ridley Scott’s Alien - featuring Peter practically jumping out of his skin while Gloria laughs at the film’s classic chest-bursting scene - may veer a little too far into self-conscious nostalgia but nonetheless is a lot of fun. Seeing Stephen Graham wearing a shell suit and bubble perm also reminds one a little too heavily of Harry Endfield’s sketch The Scousers but thankfully his performance is solid enough to avoid this detail tipping over into unintended hilarity.

However, things start to become problematic during the flashbacks to their times in the United States. Despite the involvement of the company behind the globetrotting Bond movies, it’s clear that the production didn’t have the time or budget to shoot any of the actor’s scenes Stateside. This wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that they are placed against back-projected landscapes which are so glaringly and garishly artificial. The filmmakers were arguably aiming for a romantically unreal-feeling atmosphere here but it just becomes distracting.

The real issues, however, come during the third act when the film focuses heavily on Grahame’s deterioration and the whole thing turns into a slow and depressing grind. While the subject matter isn’t exactly upbeat it’s hard to escape the feeling that the film could have done more than present an endless succession of scenes of actors arguing and blubbering away as we head towards an inevitably sad fate.

It’s a real shame that such a great Annette Bening performance has ended up in such a dispiriting film. However, if it ultimately wins an overdue golden statuette for her then that would be something. If it inspires modern moviegoers to check out some of Gloria Grahame’s glory day movies then that would also be fantastic.

Runtime: 105 mins

Dir: Paul McGuigan

Script: Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoirs of Peter Turner

Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Graham, Leanne Best

Rating: ☆☆1/2

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