Biography Drama

'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' Film Review: Annette Bening delivers an earnest performance, despite some lackluster material

January 26, 2018Siobhán Finn

Based on a true story, director Paul McGuigan's latest film opens during the final days of Academy Award winner Gloria Grahame's life. Reunited with her one-time lover, Peter Turner, the two take turns remembering their brief relationship in Rashomon-like fashion. Despite having starred alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas and James Stewart, many people won't have heard of Grahame prior to watching this movie, but that only makes her story all the more compelling.

A woman in her fifties, Grahame (Annette Bening) is in London for a stage production of The Glass Menagerie when she collapses prior to showtime. Upon arriving at the hospital, she asks for the only person in England whom she trusts: her former lover, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). Grahame ends up convalescing at Turner's parents' home, much to his consternation, and as his one-time girlfriend lies dying in his bed, he recalls key moments in their relationship, including meeting her mother (Vanessa Redgrave), finding out about her stepson/fourth husband, and the cavalcade of famous men with whom her name had at one time been linked.

Films Stars Don't Die in Liverpool works best when it retreads the final days of Turner and Grahame's relationship. The audience already knows the two broke up, but learning the truth about Gloria's health proves to be a sad end to the couple's once-bright flame. McGuigan skillfully moves from the tight confines of the pair's New York apartment to the oppressively open spaces of Grahame's doctor's office in a deliberate contrast, which both unnerves the audience and seeks to place the sympathies directly with Turner.

Whether it's Grahame trying to protect Turner from the truth, or Turner's parents (Kenneth Cranham and Julie Walters) braving their fears to visit one of their children in another country, the theme of going to any length to protect one's loved ones is revisited often throughout the film. More than any other, this theme is handled well, with McGuigan using subtle reminders to keep it at the forefront of the storytelling. Otherwise, one of the more significant plot points is Grahame and Turner's vast age gap. In a time when no one bats an eyelash at 20-year-old women playing the love interests to 50-year-old men, this is a rare glimpse at the other side of the coin.

The movie is based on Turner's 1986 memoir of the same name, however, as Turner, Bell proves to be a somewhat unreliable narrator. His character is clearly bitter about the break-up, yet at the same time he allows himself to be guilted into taking Grahame on as an unwelcome house guest. Even when he discovers the truth, his negative feelings toward his much older lover taint both his actions and his retelling of past events. That said, while it would be difficult for most actors to keep up with Bening, Bell struggles through admirably.

Although it's painful to admit, this film appears to be yet another misfire for Bening. Matt Greenhalgh's script demands she play both the sex symbol and the everywoman, but while Bening meets the task with aplomb, not even she can overcome the movie's overall lackluster feel. The public's fascination with old Hollywood is boundless, but despite earnest performances and good intentions, Films Stars Don't Die in Liverpool will likely die a quick death at the box office.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool releases January 26th, 2017 from Mongrel Media. The film has an MPAA rating of R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity. Its runtime is 1 hr. 45 min.

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