© 2018 by Patrick Sullivan

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool ★★★★

November 9, 2017

 

 

Annette Bening shines as the waning 1950's black and white movie star, Gloria Grahame, in this low-key political adaptation of Peter Turner's memoir of the same name. Jamie Bell also stars as a lovable version of Turner, Grahame's younger lover. It follows the last few weeks of her life in 1981, spent in the Turners' family home in Liverpool, and recounts her romance with the amateur actor from 1979 to present.

 

At the helm is director Paul McGuigan, whose CV consists of the much derided, Hong-Kong set sci-fi, Push, the star-studded, heavy-handed Lucky Number Slevin, and four of the best episodes from the first two seasons of Sherlock. A strange choice for a romantic biography. However, he owes much of his success here to Matt Greenhalgh, the screenwriter, and Urszula Pontikos, the cinematographer.

 

Greenhalgh has had similar acclaim for his biographical scripts concerning the lives of John Lennon, Nowhere Boy, and Joy Division lead Ian Curtis, Control. His intuition for the spoken word provides the film with a semblance of believability to what is, quite frankly, a strange romance to have really happened. And it is beautiful. Pontikos, also responsible for the shots in award winning gay indie, Weekend, brings a variety of stunning moments to the fore. Close ups of bright red lips, a finger caressing a scar bearing breast, dark, evening hues on the beach-- it is a film student or Tumblr user's dream portfolio of overused, but still gorgeous, images. Even a fine mesh curtain makes an appearance, to glorious effect.

 

 

 

It occurs about twenty minutes into the film, but the unusual pair send sparks flying for the first time when Grahame seductively invites Turner into her neighbouring room in Primrose Hill, London, to assist her in her disco dancing practice. Bell's dancing in the scene transitions to great comic effect from awkward to vibrant, and is even better for the fact that this is the same ballet-trained actor who brought Billy Elliot to the screen. From that point on, surprisingly, you find yourself willing them into bed together and that is credit to the work of Bell and Bening.

 

There is a recurring contrast between art and reality throughout, and the film's, and, in particular, Jamie Bell's, best moments occur in the authentic 80's interiors of Liverpool and Primrose Hill. The grounding and developing plot happens in a small end terrace belonging to Peter's parents, played enjoyably by Julie Walters, whose recurring joke about Manila is simply hilarious, and Kenneth Cranham, and regularly visited by Peter's brother, played to the point of near cringe by Stephen Graham. It is here, in the second scene, we hear the phone ring, and Peter finds out Gloria has fallen ill and wants to stay with them in Liverpool. It is the home atmosphere that is the basis for liking Bell's character work, and another, later phone call that contributes to the emotive punch-to-the-gut of the creative focus.

 

The structure is a little muddled, but interesting. At times, it has a profound effect. During one series of flashbacks, to a time when Grahame and Turner lived in New York, McGuigan and Greenhalgh show events twice, in each of the leads' perspectives. It is a fantastic twist, and beautifully executed. But, then again, the flashbacks are randomly placed and an excuse to do those edgy cuts where Turner walks through a door in his Liverpool home in 1981 and comes out of another in Los Angeles in 1979, or New York in 1980. It is, at times, dislocating, and the exhausting length of each flashback threatens to ruin the developing drama in the primary plot line of Grahame's dehabilitating condition in the Turner household.  

 

Annette Bening is near perfect as Gloria Grahame. There is a real world clip of Grahame collecting her Oscar shown at the end of the film and it confirms what you are thinking the whole way through: Bening could be doing the same walk in a few months time. It might not be as noticeable as, say, Eddie Redmayne's transformative work in The Theory Of Everything, but her movement, speech, and mannerisms are sharp and mesmerising. Everything is a performance for Gloria. She is impossible, egotistical, selfish. Magnificent. A favourite line of mine is at the after-party of one of her plays, during a flashback to the start of her's and Turner's relationship, where she really schools him in the topical Hollywood schmooze. 

 

"Darling, everybody here wants to fuck me."

 

And yet, Bening reveals the insecure, lonely, old woman behind the effervescent spirit. Before their first kiss in her room, she takes off her jumper to show a sexy negligee top, only to recoil due to a passaway comment. 

 

"You just think I'm an old lady, don't you?"

 

These comments run as a motif, a trigger, throughout the entire film. Grahame suffers a descent all the way to a Yorkshire stage in The Glass Menagerie (hidden message, much) and the attitude of the film proves to be a not-so-subtle two fingers up to the Hollywood elite, who fail to regularly provide this type of outstanding platform to an actor of Bening's ability, simply because she is a woman over fifty years old. And even before this, Bening produced a turn in 20th Century Women, my favourite film this year, worthy of at least a best actress nomination in February this year. The whole narrative surrounding the film and the explicit criticism of the toxic environment in the script could be the sort of political message required to propel Bening to her deserving stage come February next year. However, I fear her fifth nomination may elude her due to a lack of promotion surrounding Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool.    

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