Review: ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ Shares a Last-Gasp Romance

Posted December 28, 2017 12:52 p.m. EST

In light of a résumé skewed toward male-dominated thrillers, Scottish director Paul McGuigan might seem an unlikely choice to guide a fading-siren weepie from page to screen. Yet “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” a real-life romance adapted from the 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, reveals an unexpected fontanel of sentiment in McGuigan’s style that — when not tipping over into bathos — can be rather lovely.

Unfolding during the final years in the life of actress Gloria Grahame (who died in 1981), the movie recounts her unlikely last-gasp love affair with Turner, an English actor. When they met, in a London boardinghouse in 1978, he was 26 and she was almost three decades older, striving to supplement a waning film career with stage roles. Once a major star (she won an Oscar in 1952 for “The Bad and the Beautiful”), Grahame excelled at playing knowingly sultry floozies. Her characters were often equal parts brass and Jell-O — a combination that unmanned many a male co-star.

Peter (Jamie Bell) is no exception, and the movie’s early scenes have a wonderful buoyancy as he and Gloria (Annette Bening) effortlessly connect. Hanging out in movie theaters and blue-collar pubs, the two develop a credible chemistry that renders age irrelevant. This atmosphere of playful sexiness fades all too soon, though, when Gloria becomes desperately ill and asks to be cared for by Peter’s mother, Bella (Julie Walters, at her tart-tongued best), in his childhood home in Liverpool.

It’s a depressingly dreary ending to a tumultuous life. And as briefly luminous scenes in Los Angeles and Manhattan give way to Bella’s drab council house (whose screeching wallpaper would have sapped anyone’s will to live), McGuigan labors to dispel the odor of the grave. Directing with some flair, he employs a zigzagging timeline that gooses Matt Greenhalgh’s otherwise downbeat screenplay. In tandem with cinematographer Urszula Pontikos, he makes a virtue of contrivance, emphasizing the artifice of some of the movie’s sets by, say, having Peter stride seamlessly off a Los Angeles beach and into a Liverpudlian hallway.

Tricks like this are a welcome distraction from the story’s overreliance on pathos, but they’re not the director’s only weapon: He also has a talent for constructing stand-alone scenes that inspire us to picture worlds beyond their margins. In one of these, Gloria meets with her British mother and sulkily jealous sister (Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber, both perfect), and the encounter spins a handful of lines of dialogue into imagined decades of deep dysfunction.

Sinking too quickly from light and bright to sad and soggy, “Film Stars” affords Bening (who should have easily nabbed an Oscar last year for her sensational work in Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women”) precious few opportunities to enchant. Still, she’s marvelously mutable, shifting subtly from insecure to prideful and back again as her allure drains and her strength fails.

As marvelous as she is, it’s Bell who might be the film’s greatest surprise. Ever since he leapt onto our screens in 2000 as a gawky kid in “Billy Elliot,” his opportunities to play a romantic lead have been virtually nil. Which is a pity, because he approaches ardor with a restrained sincerity that encourages us to trust the character. In one pivotal fight scene, filmed from both lovers’ perspectives, he makes Peter’s hurt and confusion touchingly real.

Landing lightly on the loneliness of fame and the ravages of aging, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a fond farewell to a distinctive talent. Yet I couldn’t help wishing it had spent less time anticipating Grahame’s death and a little more illuminating her life.

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is rated R for a dribble of sex and a deluge of tasteless décor. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.