Gloria Grahame had quite the life. The winner of 1947’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in The Bad and the Beautiful had several husbands (the fourth and final was with the son of her second husband) over her lifetime, possessed an almost crippling level of self-consciousness and breast cancer, which ultimately returned years later and plucked her from us in 1981, in the midst of a romance with a much younger man. Over seventy years after that prestigious win, her story has been adapted from Peter Turner‘s memoirs of the same name, starring Annette Bening as the faded starlet and Jamie Bell as Turner, detailing their whirlwind love affair and her subsequent deterioration.
After her high profile career in black and white films began to wane as the silver screen transitioned to color, Gloria Grahame turned her efforts to the stage, appearing in film and television productions only infrequently and typically in supporting turns. Moving in next door to Peter Turner, the pair fall in love and they begin a passionate romance – but following her shady behavior, the two grow apart. When her health worsens sometime later, she calls on Turner to take her back to his hometown of Liverpool, to be taken care of during her final days by his family. Bening and Bell, in two stellar performances, are joined by Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham for this almost-there biopic.
The final days of the private life of a public figure
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool delves into the private life of a public figure to mainly great effect, exploring the age difference within the central relationship and an star fading and ageing before her perceived time. Rather than presenting us with a caricature of Ms. Grahame, director Paul McGuigan delivers an insightful, warts-and-all biopic no doubt facilitated in its personality by Turner’s intimate memoirs.
With unrestricted access into Gloria’s final days from the man she shared them with, the film blends time-streams together magnificently, dipping in and out of the sun-drenched past and somewhat moody present impressively. The scenes transitions are excellently-staged and seamlessly-executed, transporting us from a claustrophobic Liverpudlian kitchen to waves crashing on beautiful beaches’ shores in the blink of an eye.
McGuigan’s fine direction is enhanced by Ula Pontikos‘ lovely cinematography, utilizing light effectively and painting with shadows and silhouettes beautifully; while Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool suffers from a tight, restrictive budget (highlighted by the obviously-greenscreened Hollywood settings), it is neither too distracting nor too important to matter. You are very much in the moment with Grahame and Turner, exploring their stirring relationship in heartbreaking, heartrending ways.
The smart and sharply-considered structure helps elevate Film Stars beyond the pedestrian biopic-telling territory that could have easily weighed it down. As we wander through the various stages of Grahame and Turner’s life together, meeting their families and discovering their weaknesses (Gloria, for example, has based her own self-worth on the airbrushed and camera-ready celebrities she once brushed shoulders with), a fully-fleshed relationship blooms in front of us, stunningly crafting a unique, often fraught dynamic of different minds and generations meeting in love. For all the stylish directorial flair though, McGuigan ensures the spotlight is firmly shining on the two powerhouses in front of the camera.
Powerhouse performances shine
Magnetic and alluring, Bening and Bell provide two immensely impressive performances individually – but really shine when they share the screen, with sparks regularly flying. Complete with an effervescent, palpable chemistry that makes it difficult to take your eyes off them, the pair deserve to be prominent names in the forthcoming award season.
Bening’s performance as Gloria Grahame in her final, fading days is phenomenal, portraying the Oscar-winning actress with a sensuality, sophistication and vulnerability, showcasing the fascinating subject with true insight into her Hollywood-drained psyche. She’s insecure, anxious and volatile, with Bening capturing that difficult-to-balance blend effortlessly and graciously. Going forward into the fierce award-season, Bening is the film’s greatest chance at glory – deservedly so – and her role as Ms. Grahame will stand-out in the midst of her already-impressive filmography wonderfully.
Bell, while occasionally struggling to get to grips with the Northern accent, is an otherwise wonderful match for Bening. Few would hold a candle to an artist who has been as consistent in her career as Bening – but the BAFTA-winning actor is rarely overshadowed in a picture that should be all about Grahame. Along with his swagger and infectious likability, Bell delves into the character with assurance, deftly rendering Turner’s personal experiences with added poignancy with every lip quiver and teary eye. It is a solid addition to his filmography that will hopefully lead to more substantial, mainstream roles in the near future.
Certified National Treasure Julie Walters brings her now-recognizable warmth and charisma to the film, with another crowd-pleasing turn. In every cinema screening I have attended in the lead up to this film’s release, Walter’s trailer-stealing one-liner – “You should have given me some warning… I would have put the electric blankets on” – has garnered the best reaction, with a hearty reaction at every single screening. The charm she has now become synonymous with is laced throughout the entire performance but she can easily sell the harder-hitting moments when they are expected of her. In her short but sweet cameo, Vanessa Redgrave bestows her grace on the screen, with a tender and subtle turn as Grahame’s mother.
Liverpool’s ’70s-inspired soundtrack heightens the realism as one would expect, with a collection made up with the likes of Dusty Springfield’s “Take Another Little Piece of my Heart” (which has not come off repeat since) and Elton John’s “Song for Guy,” with Elvis Costello providing an original song, entitled “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” that slots into the ambiance and tone efficiently.
Liverpool wins a little piece of my heart
Despite a handful of stellar, starry elements in Liverpool’s mix, something holds it back. It may be that the powerhouse performances are so strong that everything around it is lacking in the focus or enthusiasm to elevate it to a similar height; it could be that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool becomes overly sentimental, somewhat mawkish and manipulative at times. Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh plonks a clumsy sequence – clearly designed to move you to tears – in the film’s final stretch, in which our lovers recite Romeo & Juliet, steadfast in their adoration for each other – but it is more of a pace-hinder than the emotionally-soaring moment Greenhalgh intended it to be. It didn’t work for me, but judging by the sniffles in my screening, worked for others.
What’s more, McGuigan’s direction lacks subtlety in the film’s final act in particular, needlessly replaying sequences to draw your attention to elements you had more than likely noticed the first time round. While he admittedly mixes-up the perspective, it undermines the audience’s intelligence and their ability to draw their own interpretations from the events, frustrating in its haphazard, cloddish execution. As visually impressive as it is too, the set design attempts to substitute for the strained budget with excessive flourishes to contrast the dreary Liverpool and glitzy Hollywood: all told, it feels heavy-handed and removes some of the realism from an otherwise steadily-rooted film.
In Conclusion: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is an insightful and touching love story that so very nearly achieves the award-season potential it evidently strives toward. It benefits from a solid structure but is undermined by pacing snags, with the melodrama tipping it the less desirable way on just a handful of occasions.
Its minor but noticeable downfalls do not detract too much though from what is a solid biopic, empowered to soar by Annette Bening and Jamie Bell’s glorious central performances and their dazzling chemistry; their names deserve to be swirling around all award-season long. McGuigan’s direction is largely solid, held back by a limiting budget, but is most impressive when connects the timelines in inventive, creative ways. The well-meaning Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool may not be the most faultless of affairs, but the central love story (and the attached performances) make up for its minor flaws.
It has also inspired me to dive into Gloria Grahame’s back catalog, so I guess we can call Film Stars Don’t Die In Loverpool a success.
What is your favourite Liverpool-set film?
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is out now in the UK, and will arrive in US cinemas next month.
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