By: Jessica Goddard
Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a sappy, sweet, and rich examination of the relationship between Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and aspiring actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), some thirty years her junior. It’s a movie about a lot of things; their weird but earnest age gap romance, the eccentric persona of the former film starlet, the panic spiral associated with aging, the cutthroat nature of showbiz.
Gloria Grahame is a fiftysomething, past-her-prime, 1950s film star, when she meets twentysomething Peter while performing in a small scale stage play in Britain. It becomes clear early on that Grahame is uncomfortable with her aging, her dwindling relevancy in the industry, and the possibility that just maybe, beauty does fade. Grahame’s family life is a mess, and it seems her finances are as well, since her and Peter meet at the boarding house where they’re both living. On top of all of this, Grahame is sick. Very sick, especially for the 70s.
It’s a moody film, for sure. Whether you go into it familiar with the story or you go into it blind, it’s obvious from the beginning that Grahame is going to die, and probably right in front of you. The story’s not presented linearly, which is an interesting choice for how it sets the tone for their impending whirlwind romance. Their meeting and the escalation of their relationship are tinged always with the knowledge that tragedy is right around the corner. It also means there’s an unsettling sense of urgency infecting all the little milestones in their relationship.
Bening and Bell are both great in their roles, with a chemistry that’s believable but never entirely comfortable to witness (in the kind of way where you can accept these people are in love, even though you don’t understand it). The depth of their connection is apparent, and their lows are as gutting as their highs are delighting. Unfortunately, Turner’s character isn’t written with much complexity; we only know that he loves Grahame and that he is so, so good to her. Whereas Grahame is written more like the interesting character she was in life – stubborn and troubled, but generous and exuberant. We get a decent panorama of her world as her life draws to a close in the early 80s, while we get more like a few detailed slides of Turner’s.
This is a sad one, but the biopic aspect keeps it engaging – in some ways it’s a story so strange it must be true. It feels a little long, even though it’s technically not. There are a handful of excellent scenes that make it worth watching, if you’re up for the emotional beatdown.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod