Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

 

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A British film that succeeds handsomely on two different levels.

 
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Jamie Bell with Annette Bening

 

The true story told in this film directed by Paul McGuigan is such that it will mean different things to different people. Based on the book of the same title by Liverpudlian Peter Turner, it describes his relationship when still short of the age of thirty with the actress Gloria Grahame who was then in her fifties.

 

Viewers who recall Gloria Grahame and her work in Hollywood in the 1940s and during the following decade will rightly see this as a tribute to her which resonates on a very personal level. For others it will be no less effective but will function as a touching love story, one illustrating how a large age gap is not necessarily a handicap - for these viewers it will be incidental that the woman involved was a famous actress suffering from a career decline that brought her to London to seek stage roles.

 

Turner, himself an aspiring actor, met Gloria Grahame in 1979 when she was lodging in Primrose Hill and they became a couple accepted as such by his parents. He would later go with her to America and, despite moments of strain in their relationship, it seems likely that what really brought it to an end was her wish to conceal the fact that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when in New York. Regardless of the split, she would still turn to Peter and his family in 1981 when she collapsed in her dressing room during a subsequent stage tour set up in this country.

 

As written by Matt Greenhaigh, the drama is tellingly told, although some audiences may not immediately adjust to some arty touches (changes in time and location are often stylised as one set transforms into another, one scene plays twice to encourage us to respond differently each time and just occasionally back projection or a backcloth echo films from an earlier era). But the film is compulsively involving, much aided in this by its cast. Vanessa Redgrave has a wonderfully comic cameo as Gloria Grahame's eccentric mother  while Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham offer less subtle but lively support as Peter Turner's parents. However, it is the two lead players who carry the film.

 

Annette Bening, with an unforced hint of the real Gloria Grahame in her appearance, is on her very best form, but the real revelation here is Jamie Bell. Playing Peter Turner, he attains a new stature becoming one of those actors who has discovered that less is more due to his relationship with the camera having developed into one in which the thoughts and feelings of his character are fully revealed without reliance on dialogue. He and Bening make this a moving portrait of an honest but vulnerable relationship: they are so effective that it is less fatal than it should be when the film offers a contrived weepie moment (it takes place on the stage of the Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool and could, I suppose, be factual but it plays like a fictional elaboration). We forgive this scene, however, because the film makes us really care about its central couple and the film's use of stylisation does enable it to end tellingly with footage of Gloria Grahame herself.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Frances Barber, Leanne Best, James Bloor, Peter Turner.

 

Dir Paul McGuigan, Pro Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines, Screenplay Matt Greenhaigh, from the memoir by Peter Turner, Ph Urszula Pontikos, Pro Des Eve Stewart, Ed Nick Emerson, Music J. Ralph, Costumes Jane Temime.

 

IM Global/Lionsgate/Eon Productions/Synchronistic Pictures-Lionsgate UK.
105 mins. UK. 2017. Rel: 17 November 2017. Cert. 15.