After an unlikely ocean-spanning, 1970s whirlwind romance between young British actor Peter Turner and ageing ‘Golden Era’ screen siren Gloria Grahame ends, a tender relationship is rekindled on the streets of humble Liverpool in poignant fashion—in this biographical drama based on an unlikely bond which straddled Hollywood and Merseyside.
No one could accuse Paul McGuigan of being a one-dimensional or single genre filmmaker, having helmed everything from British indies like Irvine Welsh’s urban psychedelic ‘The Acid House’ and Brit gangster flick ‘Gangster No. 1’, American mystery/dramas ‘Wicker Park’ and ‘Lucky Number Slevin’, and even Hollywood studio fare like sci-fi thriller ‘Push’ and the recent ‘Victor Frankenstein’—all to varying degrees of success. Now the British director tackles the biographical drama, bringing to life an unlikely story of human connection, love and friendship, and the fleeting nature of fame—based on the memoirs of Peter Turner.
Jamie Bell stars as the aspiring young 70s British actor Turner himself, a Liverpudlian in London who discovers he has an illustrious new neighbour, Oscar-winning Hollywood star Gloria Grahame(The Bad and the Beautiful, It’s a Wonderful Life), played by Annette Bening—now in the twilight of her career and in town on a theatre run. As this chance meeting evolves into an unlikely romance which spans an ocean, their bond is tested by self-doubt and tragic consequences, only to come full circle and bring them together in the humble Turner family Liverpool home run by matriarch Bella (Julie Walters)—where the two will face an inescapable fate together.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is very much a tale of two parts and two moods, flowing seamlessly back and forth between the light and dark of Turner and Grahame’s burgeoning ocean-crossing romance in the 70s and indeed what made it fall apart, and the more sober circumstances which brought them back together in 1980s Britain—all the while painting a picture of a tender bond based on admiration and affection, but also coloured by neuroses, doubt and eventually tragedy.
The tone of the film itself is a reflection of the central relationship and the two eras it’s divided into, fluctuating between being the adventurous, charming and care-free early days, and the sombre moods of a later time, when the realities of the world set in and Grahame’s fortunes change. That very contrast is augmented by shifting between a melancholy score from composer J. Ralph(Lucky Number Slevin, The Cove) and a more up-tempo soundtrack of 60s and 70s soul and disco hits, as well as the music of Grahame’s own classic Hollywood films.
There’s no doubt that the unlikely romance at the heart of the film makes for a captivating premise at least, interesting enough to draw you in, but the handling of the material ultimately prevents this from being a truly engrossing love story, or moving enough to make it memorable. By keeping the focus on the subtle emotions of the two star-crossed, and resisting the urge to sensationalise or delve deep into the psychology of their unique relationship, McGuigan & co. effectively miss the opportunity to leverage what makes this story unique and separates it from other innocuous romance dramas.
There is a clear contrast between the nature of these unique and seemingly opposing individuals—one of which is far from the norm by any measure—and the choice to treat the material as a regular romance between two people for whom nothing else matters, which is not only rather naive and clichéd but also hints at a corny ‘love-conquers-all’ proposition, which the film thankfully never truly commits to.
The result though is a romance that’s too subtle for its own good and never truly sparks, and a drama which proves slightly bland with no real edge, despite the opportunity to introduce some though the tragedy which inevitably turns the story. Yet despite some narrative shortcomings and a slightly underwhelming tone, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ boasts one factor which saves it from being disappointingly stuck between a forgettable biographical drama and a lacklustre period romance—and that’s the performances of its two stars.
As the head and half the heart of the piece from whose perspective the story is told, Jamie Bell sheds his young star skin and defies his boyish looks to deliver a nuanced honest performance with a more restrained energy than we’ve seen from the young Brit. Meanwhile the always excellent Annette Bening is truly and appropriately the star of the show in every way, delivering a subtle and masterful portrayal of a complex, pouty and soft-spoken but deceptively shrewd former femme-fatale of the noir era, now in her twilight years and struggling with neuroses, delusion and even bigger issues—yet retaining the timeless grace of a classic screen siren.
The Bottom Line…
A dramatisation of a remarkable true story told from a distinctly individual perspective, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ has its honest charms but very little edge or novelty, making for a romance which never really sparks and a drama which doesn’t entirely captivate—yet is made entirely watchable by its period stylings and the beguiling performances of its two stars.
‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is out on the 16th of November in the UK, and on the 29th of December in the US.