Film Stars Don't Die in LiverpoolReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/08/18 12:44:53
(Worth A Look)
It's only reasonable to be somewhat skeptical about "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"; present-day Annette Bening doesn't quite recall the image of Gloria Grahame in one's head, and that is potentially a huge hurdle for the movie to get over, especially since a large part of the audience is people who do have an image of her in her 1940s-1950s heyday in their heads (as opposed to the later years of smaller roles and TV work). It works in large part because the filmmakers are able to use and subvert that dissonance, creating an oft-intriguing story of fighting and accepting the march of time out of it.Gloria Grahame was, as one person in the film points out, a big deal in black and white in the early 1950s, even winning an Oscar, but not so much afterwards; in 1981 she collapses backstage in Lancaster, England. Her emergency contact turns out to be Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a much less famous and much younger actor living with his parents (Julie Waters & Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool. They bring her into the house to recuperate, which naturally causes Peter to reflect on how they met in London and became lovers two years previously.
The initial scenes where the audience meets Gloria as weakened and diminished - in obvious contrast to the thirty-year-old stills she keeps in her dressing room alongside inscribed gifts from the likes of Humphrey Bogart - are certainly jarring and imply a fairly familiar characterization, but screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (working from the real-life Peter's memoir) and director Paul McGuigan have something a little different in mind. Instead of giving us the salty and jaded woman who has contempt for her naive younger self, the movie works because the filmmakers have Bening play it like the youthful Grahame of In a Lonely Place: coquettish and sly, with a breathy voice, like it's never really sunken in that she's not that girl anymore. It's a trick that can backfire, and that it doesn't is a testament to how good Berning's performance is - the audience can see not just Bening imitating Grahame, but Grahame imitating herself.
It is, therefore, pretty interesting to see where the filmmakers decide to shatter that delusion and where they don't. Obviously, the moments where someone points out her age and specifically the gap between it and that of Peter are going to be revealing, and Bening nails those, but the genuine lack of bitterness at her reduced circumstances and her delight when watching a certain movie are even more telling. And the scene where she realizes just how inescapable her age is is great - she agrees about twenty years for better and worse at once. The film doesn't have Gloria become entirely centered or wise at this point - she wouldn't camp out in the Turners' spare bedroom two years later if that was the case - but it communicates the power of this moment to her.
That scene is also the moment when director Paul McGuigan gets the most out of his flashback-heavy structure, although the shifting perspectives of it also highlights just how little is going one with Jamie Bell's young lover. He's a likable bloke, but there are moments when the audience can't help but realize that by skipping over a few too-familiar scenes, the filmmakers also skip a chance to get inside his head, and it leaves a bit of a void that the entertaining family members he brings with him can't quite fill. Julie Waters and Kenneth Cranham don't exactly steal scenes away from Jamie Bell as Peter's parents, but even though they exist on the edges of the story, the audience probably feels better acquainted with them than the son.Overall, though, it's a nifty little movie, calling back to both Grahame's period and that of its 1979-1981 setting in ways that are clever but not self-satisfied. You get a pretty nice new Elvis Costello song in the credits as a bonus, too. This sort of film could have been a sordid tell-all or a grasp at fame, but instead it's a well-done tale of not being able to let go of one's youth that resonates better than one might expect.
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