In 1978, a young British man named Peter Turner struck up an unlikely relationship with Hollywood film actress Gloria Grahame. In 1986, he wrote a book about it, and now, that book has been adapted into the movie Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
begins in 1981 with Gloria Grahame (20th Century Women
's Annette Bening) collapsing while getting ready to take the stage one evening. She refuses medical treatment, instead reaching out to her ex-lover, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell from Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
), in her time of need. It turns out that the cancer that Gloria had beaten years before is back, and the actress moves in with Peter's family in Liverpool where she can convalesce under the watchful eye of Peter's mother, Bella (Julie Walters from the Paddington
movies). While she's there, Gloria and Peter drum up the old memories of their relationship and the friendship that has been born from it.
Turner's memoir of the same name was adapted by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy
) and brought to life by director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein
). For a movie with a timeline that hops and jumps around quite a bit as it takes the viewer through the history of Peter and Gloria's relationship, Film Star Don't Die in Liverpool
has a surprisingly coherent storyline. It's a simple one, full of love and loss, heartache and fulfillment, but a coherent one nonetheless.
The relationship between Peter and Gloria is what's at the heart of the movie, and despite the age differences and continental distance, it's not treated as cartoonishly as it could have been, which is good. The movie is, essentially, about dying, both physically and emotionally, and the last thing the audience needs is a caricature of something that they've seen a million times in daytime soap operas. Instead, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
treats its subject matter with sympathy and hope, with love and kindness, showing how Peter and Gloria both provided something that the other needed. And that's how they were able to survive their breakup with their intense friendship intact.
Cinematically, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
is a bit of a slow burn, but never drags, mostly due to the fact that the viewer is carried along by character conversations that break the fourth wall without really breaking it, if that makes any sense. Exposition is plentiful, but never spoon-fed, and although there are mysteries and secrets, nothing is hidden from the audience's view, despite the fact that Peter and Gloria's memories and interpretations of events don't always sync up.
In the end, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
is a character study of a couple who fell in, then out of love, but still harbor a deep respect and affection for each other and support each other in their respective times of need. It's a quirky little opposites-attract romantic tragedy, with an emphasis on the tragedy part, yet it still manages to be uplifting at the same time. Basically, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
is about life and what a couple of soulmates have made out of it.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
is an actor's movie, and Annette Bening is an actor's actress. Bening seems to get better with every movie (and she's already been good for decades). Her portrayal of Gloria Grahame goes from comforting maternal figure to saucy cougar at the drop of a hat, and Bening plays both sides of the coin equally well. She captures the triumph of Gloria's youth, as well as the heartbreak of her impending death. Gloria is a holdout from old Hollywood who never quite caught on in the post-color era, and Bening is able to inject Gloria's career frustrations into the character without the audience ever seeing them first hand. There's a bit of an air of Bening playing herself, or maybe a future version or an alternate reality incarnation of herself. She's charming and likeable, even when her character isn't, which goes a long way towards generating sympathy and empathy with the audience. And that's something that is needed in a movie about a character who is dying of cancer.
As for Jamie Bell, he holds his own onscreen with the legendary Bening, even if he mostly functions as a sympathetic ear and a sounding board for her grievances. The character of Peter is there to support Gloria in the same way that Bell is there to support Bening. He's necessary to the plot, but Bening predictably steals the movie.