“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” will interest you especially if you are familiar with Gloria Grahame, one of the most famous actresses in Hollywood during the 1940-50s. While appearing in a number of notable classic films such “Crossfire” (1947), “In a Lonely Place” (1950), “The Bad and The Beautiful” (1952), “The Big Heat” (1953), and “Oklahoma!” (1955), she quickly established her stardom as winning a Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful”, but then her career went down after the 1950s, and she was also quite notorious for her rather complicated personal life.
The movie opens with Grahame, played by Annette Bening, is preparing for her stage performance in London, 1981. Everything looks fine as she carefully applies make-ups on her face, but then she collapses on the floor right before the performance begins, and then the movie moves its focus onto Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a young British actor who was once in a very close relationship with Grahame. When he comes back to his home where he has lived with his parents and older brother, he is notified of what happened to Grahame, and she is soon sent to his home because she simply wants to be near him despite her serious illness.
Although Turner’s family, who know well about his relationship with Grahame, do as much as they can for making Grahame feel comfortable, her condition gets worsened day by day, and that accordingly makes Turner quite miserable. During one evening, he chooses to spend the night at a bar just because he cannot face what Grahame is going through at his home, and he gets some consolation from one of his friends, but that does not make him feel better at all.
This melancholic melodrama between Turner and Grahame is intercut with a series of flashback scenes showing their relationship in the past. When Turner encountered Grahame for the first time in London, 1979, he did not know much about her, and she was just a middle-aged American actress lady who happened to live right next to his residence, but he soon finds himself attracted to her when he gets a chance to spend some time with her. While casually talking with him, she suggests that they dance together with disco music, and it does not take much time for them to discern the mutual feeling between them.
Turner later comes to LA for staying with Grahame for a while, and that is when he comes to learn a bit about his lover’s personal life. As some of you know, Grahame’s fourth husband was the son of her first husband Nicholas Ray (yes, he is that legendary director who made “In a Lonely Place” and “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955)), and it was rumored that Grahame slept with her stepson during her first marriage (And he was a minor at that time, by the way).
Nevertheless, Turner’s affection toward Grahame remains same as before. When they are spending their private time together, he confesses to her about his, uh, flexible sexuality, and she frankly replies that she is not so different from him in that aspect. They continue to live happily together, but, of course, their happiness does not last long as a couple of changes come into their life. While Turner receives an offer which may help his acting career a lot, Grahame receives a certain bad news, and that leads to a serious conflict which eventually results in the end of their relationship.
Around that narrative point, the adapted screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, which is based on Turner’s memoir of the same name, tries to generate some dramatic effect. For instance, the movie shows a crucial moment via one viewpoint and then shows it again via the other viewpoint, but the result feels rather repetitive without much surprise, and the following finale only leaves a mild impression on the whole.
At least, the movie is supported well by its main cast members, who give solid performances under the competent direction of director Paul McGuigan. Perfectly cast in her role, Bening, who has gracefully aged as shown from her recent Oscar-nominated turns in “Being Julia” (2004) and “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), effortlessly exudes matured grace and sensuality whenever she is on the screen, and I enjoyed how she livens up several nice moments including a brief but amusing scene where Graham and Turner go to a movie theater for watching a certain popular film which was released in 1979. Bening also a good job of conveying to us Grahame’s quiet despair with her worsening illness, and she is heartbreaking as her character makes an important decision for herself as well as her lover later in the story.
The other performers surrounding Bening are less impressive in comparison, though they fill their roles as much as they can. Jamie Bell gives an earnest performance which functions well as a counterpoint to Bening’s showier performance, and he and Bening are believable in the development of their characters’ relationship. As Turner’s family members, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, and Stephen Graham bring some personality to their respective supporting characters, and Vanessa Redgrave is also fine as Grahame’s mother although she only appears during one short scene.
Overall, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is an average twilight romance film, but it mostly works thanks to Bening’s engaging performance. Since she drew attention for the first time through her breakthrough turn in “The Grifters” (1990), she has steadily advanced during last 28 years, and I certainly hope that she will keep going on as usual.