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Movie Review Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
by Paul Preston
The Movie Guys
If you’re ever wondering if a movie is worth seeing, just look for two words – Annette Bening. In a year having a most welcome overabundance of outstanding female performances, you can add Bening to the growing list. She shines as Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame.
Based on a true account, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool finds Grahame past her prime in 1978, involved in a May-December relationship with a 28-year old man (Jamie Bell). Bell plays Liverpudlian (I love that word) Peter Turner (the author who wrote the book on which the film is based), whose parents rented a room to Grahame. What begins as obvious flirting by an attention-desiring Grahame soon becomes a complex and profound love affair.
Writer Matt Greenhalgh and director Paul McGuigan wisely spend much of the film fleshing out the romance of the relationship. It’s never played jokey (playful, sure) and Grahame genuinely loves Turner. The big star/regular guy relationships in movies often work with the relationship hidden or squelched. This movie is about two people falling and being in love. Well, part of the movie. The narrative of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool begins much later, when Gloria returns to Liverpool, and returns to Peter’s family to fight (or run from) an illness. The romance is then shown in flashbacks while in the present, Gloria and Peter test just how strong their love for each other may still be.
McGuigan is very creative with those flashbacks. Characters will open a door and be in a location far removed from where they just were and will have stepped back to the a memory that we get to witness. Even more clever is the story conceit of returning to scenes we already saw to explore them from another angle, deepening their meaning and giving us further understanding of the characters’ behavior. Another nice touch is giving the Los Angeles flashback scenes a film-like quality, to where the technicolor is enhanced and it’s very clear the location is a set, as if the memories were a movie themselves. The kind of movie Gloria enjoyed being in perhaps more than her real life.
McGuigan and the lead performances make all this work. I mean, there’s even a scene where Gloria and Peter are dancing around in the living room. People dancing in their living room scenes run rampant in movies (usually parents dancing around with their kid). Then there’s the obligatory shot from the street where we seem them dancing around in the window. First of all, these moments in real life are rare, and secondly, making them seem real almost always fails, and McGuigan pulled it off, so…good on ya, Paul.
I’ve been a Jamie Bell fan ever since he played the title role in Billy Elliot. He shows impressive depth here and I would like to lobby for him to be in the running for a few more dense roles like this one. The supporting cast is filled out by the likes of Julie Walters, Stephen Graham and Vanessa Redgrave.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool has been out for a while so I’ve seen some of the criticisms and, as ever, many of them criticize the movie they wanted it to be as opposed to the movie that is. If you want a Gloria Grahame biopic that goes into detail about her personal life and career, there’s certainly enough material there for another feature film (she married her stepson, for one), but this isn’t a biopic, it’s a romance. It captures a moment (the last of Grahame’s) in time. To say this film didn’t go in-depth enough would be like criticizing Lincoln for not covering enough of his time as a lawyer in Illinois. That’s not what the movie’s about.
If you look at what Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool IS about, I think you’ll find a satisfying drama, more adult than your average romance or weepie.
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Release Date: December 29, 2017
Run Time: 105 Minutes
Distributor: SONY Pictures Classics
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