Monday 23 December 2019

Movie Review: Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool (2017)

A biographical drama, Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool recounts the incongruous final days of Academy Award winning actress Gloria Grahame, far from the limelight.

The setting is England in 1981. In nondescript Lancaster, Grahame (Annette Bening) collapses in her dressing room ahead of a stage performance of The Glass Menagerie. She reconnects with her much younger former lover Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a stage actor, and relocates to his modest family home in Liverpool to rest and recover.

Peter still lives with his parents Bella (Julia Walters) and Joe (Kenneth Cranham). As they collectively care for their unexpected guest Peter recollects in flashback his torrid love affair with Grahame. They met in 1979, quickly fell in love despite the age difference, and Grahame introduced him to her life in Los Angeles and New York, including her mother (Vanessa Redgrave). They briefly moved in together but tensions arose almost immediately. Back in the present Gloria insists she will get better on her own, but her health appears to be in serious decline.

Based on the book by Turner and directed by Paul McGuigan, Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool is a literal example of life ending with a whimper rather than a bang. With her stardom days well behind her Grahame sees out her final hours in a cold spare bedroom in a wet and grey Liverpool, refusing to acknowledge the severity of her illness.

While her presence causes some drama among the Turner family members, McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh are aware not much narrative momentum can be squeezed out of a woman confined to a bedroom. So a good half of the film recounts the origins and evolution of the love affair between Grahame and Turner.

The romance elements are only modestly engaging. Grahame had already worked her way through four husbands (including to her stepson) by the time she met Turner, and the film confirms both her ability to merge staged performance with life as needed, and her struggle to differentiate real and manufactured emotions. The relationship is therefore his infatuation meeting her desire to remain young, and McGuigan does not offer other grounding commonalities. Not surprisingly, their connection is as easy to disrupt as it was to ignite.

Bening's performance is considered and mostly disciplined in finding the lingering swagger of an actress who was among Hollywood's most celebrated stars a quarter of a century prior. Jamie Bell functions within a narrow range, while Julia Waters easily finds the warmth of a housewife welcoming a relative stranger into her house despite her own worries. Vanessa Redgrave gets the one scene as Gloria's mother.

Most of the movie takes place indoors. McGuigan conveys a dreary early 1980s Liverpool aesthetic, while the scenes in Los Angeles and New York are artificial and studio-bound. Other elements hint at sloppiness or production limitations: a despondent Peter spends a night away from the mounting tensions at home, and seeks solace with an Eileen (Leanne Best) who remains contextually undefined.

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool does not overreach its limited source material, and settles into an obvious if still sometimes poignant posture.

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