Mark Reviews Movies

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool


1.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul McGuigan

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

MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexual content and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 12/29/17 (limited); 1/12/18 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 28, 2017

There is something inherently sad about the story of Gloria Grahame, whose last years are portrayed in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. Well, her story is kind of portrayed in the movie, which focuses on a seemingly secretive love story between the actress and a decades-younger man from the eponymous city. Grahame's story is that of a faded star, a name actress in the 1950s who won an Academy Award and was friends with other famous actors and filmmakers of the era. By the late 1970s, she is performing in regional theater productions, dropping the names of her now-dead friends, and recognized only by a few ordinary people who remember her from the big screen.

This is a common story among those rare creatures who find success and celebrity in this world. More often than not, fame is fleeting. The bright lights of stardom diminish. Reduce this reality to its basics, and there are two ways in which such people can respond to these facts: acceptance or denial.

The Gloria of the movie, played by Annette Bening, is clearly in a state of denial. While in England, she openly wonders what it takes to become part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is fine, considering that her career has taken a recent theatrical route. Her reason for wanting to join, though, doesn't gel with the reality of her life at the moment. She wants to play Juliet. When her lover wonders if she meant the far more age-appropriate role of the nurse, her instant reaction is one of angerónot just at him but at the idea that she's too old to play the teenage lover in that tragic tale.

The movie, based on Peter Turner's memoir about his romantic relationship with Grahame, doesn't see the actress as much more than two things: a performer in denial about the present state of her career and a woman in denial about the severity of an illness. She has two modes here: basking in the little glory she has left and withering away in an upstairs bedroom in the family home of her lover.

Even though her health is an issue from the movie's first scene, the screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh doesn't even tell us about her medical condition until the halfway point, and at that point, the characters still talk around it, as if saying the word "cancer" will somehow make it even more real than it already is. There's some truth to this, of course, but the movie seems to be saving the revelation of her condition for some later time, so that it can take us by surprise.

That doesn't work, partly because the reveal itself is so clumsy. We see her upset with her boyfriend in a couple of scenes. Then those scenes play out again from her perspective, but we've learned about her illness. We already knew about it, though, since the entire structure of the movie is built around that single fact.

It's also because it makes Gloria's illness the key mystery and near-complete definition of the character. We're introduced to her when she's ill and convinced that she can get well on her own, and after that, we only see her through a series of flashbacks with Peter (Jamie Bell), as she realizes that the cancer she thought she had beaten has, in fact, returned.

As for Peter, his defining characteristic is that he loves Gloria. He's an actor, too, although his work is mainly a way for them to bond upon their first meeting and a means to distract him from the harsh reality of Gloria's suffering later.

These characters exist in a bubble of happy-go-lucky romance and inevitable tragedy. There are only highs and lows here, and neither character seems to have a life outside of each other. Some details about Gloria's past come to light through her mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) and sister (played by Frances Barber), but it's gossip-rag material, really.

The bulk of the movie is simply devoted to keeping us in the dark about Gloria's condition, and once the vital word is spoken, the rest of the movie is a maudlin, morose confirmation of Gloria's seemingly suicidal denial and Peter's undying devotion. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool doesn't care much about these characters, save for them serving as a means of melodrama, and it's ineffective as melodrama, because every detail and beat feels precisely but falsely calculated.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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