Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool-2017
Starring-Annette Bening, Jamie Bell
Scott’s Review #840
Reviewed December 11, 2018
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) showcases a compelling performance by stalwart actress Annette Bening as she plays faded, insecure Hollywood glamour girl, Gloria Grahame. The film focuses only on Grahame’s final two years of life as she battles breast cancer and begins a relationship with a much younger man, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell).
The film is a sad yet poignant dedication to the star featuring enough performance gusto from its actors to make up for a limited span of time and too much back and forth within the timeline that complicated the film too much. As a result, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is endearing but does not hit it out of the park.
The entire film takes place between 1979 and 1981 as actress Gloria Grahame, her best days behind her, resides in a rented Liverpool room. In 1979 she has found a bit of success in local theater and befriends her much younger male neighbor. The pair become romantic partners and experience trials and tribulations as the film teeters back and forth between Grahame’s ailing final days in 1981 to happier times in Los Angeles and New York. Gloria also befriends and finally lives with Peter’s parents, who care for her unflinchingly.
The story is enveloped in sadness but is not a downer either. The film begins towards the end of Gloria’s illness though the audience is not aware yet of the seriousness of her disease. Insisting she just has painful gas, the tender relationship between the actress and Peter is explored. The story then parlays back to 1979 when Peter and Gloria first meet- he an aspiring actor unaware of who she is until a bartender makes the connection. In this way the film makes it clear this is not a story about a young man seeking the fortunes of a presumably wealthy woman. I like this point as the story is about romance not money grubbing.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool belongs to Bening. The supporting roles are well cast taking nothing away from either Bell’s performance or a nice turn by Julie Walters as Peter’s mum. Bening, however, does wonders emulating the mannerisms of Grahame with an innocent, damsel in distress nature (mirroring the roles she made famous). Bening amazes at revealing the actress’s insecurities and fear of aging and an older appearance. During a fight Peter cruelly refers to her as an “old lady” and we see the comment strike a deadly blow the same as if she had been physically slapped. Bening is so good at portraying a myriad of emotions over the course of the film.
Another high point comes towards the end of the film. I love the way the film connects an earlier argument (and breakup) between Gloria and Peter with a later sequence. As Peter assumes she was carrying on with another man when he learns she lied about her whereabouts, the haunting reality is later revealed, changing the audience’s entire perception of the turn of events. This is good writing by the screenwriters.
To counter the above point, the constant back and forth from 1981 to 1979 and everywhere in between detracts from the enjoyment of the overall film for me. Spanning only two years the film spends way too much time in multiple locations without enough explanation. Suddenly Gloria and Peter are in Los Angeles having dinner with her mother and sister at Gloria’s modest house, then they are in New York City in her lavish Park Avenue apartment. The film would have been better suited with a straightforward approach chronicling events from 1979 to 1981 in sequence.
Another negative is the omission of any scenes prior to 1979. The actress’s career thrived during the 1940’s and 1950’s so it would have been interesting to capture those earlier days. If the fear was that Bening was too old to pass for a younger Grahame, another actress could have been used for those scenes. While a clip of the real Grahame winning the Oscar and a few clips of her starring in films are nice, way more time could have been spent on more story.
Thanks to a brilliant performance by Bening and an emotional story that in large part succeeds, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) is a win. Not recognized during awards season as originally anticipated, this could have been due to the overly complex timeline and thus the limiting feeling the film produced. The production and writing are very good, but lack greatness.