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Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Director Paul McGuilian measures the balance between the serious, the comedic, and the emotional in this tender love story defying stigma and taboo

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Gloria Grahame, star of the screen and icon of 1950s Film noir, is no longer the femme fatale in this endearing love story about her final years and her relationship with a young actor from Liverpool.

Gloria is portrayed by Annette Benning, who shines. The sensual and sensitive actress, who although hasn’t quite stepped away from the dramatic performances of her heyday, shows a delicate and frail side here. Peter Turner, played with a heartfelt subtlety by the lovely Jamie Bell, is the young aspiring actor who falls for Grahame.

Director Paul McGuilian measures a balance between the serious, the comedic, and the emotional, all the while working well from Matt Greenhalgh’s adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir about Grahame’s final years suffering from breast cancer.

The film opens backstage: the Hollywood icon is getting ready in a dressing room, decorating herself in her Kitsch makeup set, a glossy filter tints our fuzzy vision, as we get glimpses of Benning’s Grahame before she seemingly splutters and collapses on her dressing room floor.

It is the 1970s. Peter is in Liverpool and receives a phone call telling him that a certain Miss Grahame has become very ill. It is clear that these two have a relationship which had become strained at this point, but Gloria’s apparently sudden turn brings them back together as she expresses her wish for Peter and his family to care for her until she is better.

Frequent flashbacks give a picture of the past. Peter and Gloria live and meet in an apartment block, and while Gloria’s invitation to Peter to come to her flat in the middle of day to fix him a drink and dance some disco is clearly an act of seduction, there is a heartfelt innocence to the scene. One cannot help but feel it was a wonderful excuse to let Bell tap into his Billy Elliot as the pair sweat out some funky moves.

For Billy Elliot fans it will be a delight to see Julie Walters and Jamie Bell back on screen together as Mother and Son. Walters and Kenneth Cranham play Peter’s parents, and reliably set up the cosy family household in Liverpool in which Gloria insists on spending her time recovering.

The mundane English household is something of a contrast to the ferocious black and white image of Gloria on the silver screen. But it is as though this Hollywood goddess and force of nature, has penetrated this everyday Liverpudlian lifestyle almost naturally — the star of the screen might seem a million miles away, but the mystery of Graham remains intact even when she is at her frailest in the film.

At times, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool feels like a quiet homage to not only the classic Hollywood era, but some staple popular films since then, such as Spielberg’s Alien, which Gloria and Peter watch with passionate innocence. But the film also recognises the changing nature of the big screen, and the sometimes unstable relationships that exist within Hollywood. It speaks to a love of film and innocence to the dazzle of the screen.

Film Stars Don’t Die has an ambitious structure, ultimately following Gloria and Peter in their current state, and telling the story of their relationship. These different periods of time are alternated throughout the film. The time frames often shift through the use of one fluid camera move without cutting, blurring our sense of time so that each scene this happens it seems continuous.

Rather than muddle our sense of time, this works well to give the film its sense of stage, emotion, and personal narrative. These temporal shifts, given from Peter’s perspective ultimately work well and emphasise his genuine loving feelings for the sassy screen queen — which is at the rather believable heart of the film.

The stubbornness and drama of a leading lady is within Gloria till the end. Her refusal to get treatment, see a doctor, or tell her family, including her son who is about Peter’s age, is met by Peters frustration in having his Hollywood ex-girlfriend to stay at his family home.

But love prevails, and Gloria’s dream to someday play Shakespeare’s Juliet on stage, is granted by Peter. In a sad and sweet scene, he arranges for the pair to read out the play at his local theatre. This is a sweet film and will challenge any assumptions and taboos you may feel about an older woman having a romantic relationship with a younger dashing man.

What could have been a cringe-worthy on screen romance between a young man and a glamorous older women, which may have provoked some rather awkward laughter, is actually a tender love story defying age stigmas and cultural borders. An entertaining retelling, with some shining performances.