This film tells the most eloquent, shattering and unbelievable – yet true – of love stories. If I was reading a review that contained the number of further superlatives that I want to use, my editorial verdict would have to be to put a red pen through most of them and ask the reviewer to offer something a bit more insightful rather than simply wax lyrical. I will attempt to take my own advice, but in all honesty, I want to shout from the top of the Liver Building about the brilliance of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.
The story is of the meeting in 1979 of film star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), then in her mid-fifties, and struggling twenty-something actor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and the following two years of their lives, together and apart. On paper, everything about their relationship is unlikely to say the least, but the various elements of this film combine to make it the most natural and moving of love stories. Matt Greenhalgh’s script (adapted from Turner’s memoir) and Paul McGuigan’s direction both serve the story extremely well. But it’s the chemistry between the two leads that lifts this film to another level.
Bening and Bell are extraordinary. The truth of this implausible affair does not mean it is an easy sell, yet the pair of them sweep the audience up into the whirlwind of the initial romance, and then its damage path. The early flirtation is not dragged out for too long on screen, but it is captivating and we see enough (including my new favourite film dance scene of all time) to buy in fully to what follows. Bening brings the glamour of a film noir actress and the vulnerability that lies behind the make up to the table at the same time, and in doing so makes a poster girl accessible, amiable yet somewhat ethereal, just as she no doubt was to Peter. Bell is confident, alluring and slightly awe-struck at first, later wary and hard-bitten as he reels from the impact of Hurricane Gloria.
It isn’t a personal gripe, but anyone getting frustrated by the increasing use of flashbacks in storytelling on screen (as another author is – excuse the language) might find him- or herself slightly irked. I would argue, though, that in any feature length rather than series setting, this device does more than bulk out characters, generate suspense and allow the viewer more than one vantage point on a story. It functions to highlight the contrasts, both subtle and acute, between a character at the beginning and the end of his or her journey, and it certainly does so here. Without any signposts to mark the shifts from flashback to the narrative present, it’s largely up to the actors to wear the passage of even a short period of time on their faces and in their body language, and Bell in particular excels at this.
There could have been be no better choices than Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham and Stephen Graham to play Peter’s mother, father and brother, respectively. Characters whose goodness is so integral to the narrative arc of the film demand robust, authentic performances from their actors, and these are delivered to a person. There’s no explicit mention of the Catholicism that it is probably fair to ascribe to a working class household in Liverpool in the early 1980s (aside from Bella’s blessing, ‘May the Lord protect you, Gloria Grahame’), but the hospitality and love that the family exhibit are a better advert for it than anything more overtly pious would be. Gloria’s family are briefly represented by her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who delights in her daughter’s thespian side, and an acerbic turn from Frances Barber as her sister, in a scene that (probably deliberately) serves to demonstrate why the home comforts of a terraced street in Liverpool are more desirable than anything on offer for Gloria on the Pacific coast.
Had it been released 12 months previously, this film might have benefitted from Tinseltown’s tendency to greet anything about itself with open arms and fanfare (which certainly accounted for a lot of the hype around La La Land). However, its release comes amidst a distressing and seemingly endless series of accusations about the behaviour of notable personalities in the industry. Hollywood is now shining a very different kind of spotlight upon itself and therefore may not want to celebrate this film. I hope that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool will be recognised for the craft it displays and the story it tells.