TELLURIDE FILM REVIEW: Annette Bening Shines in FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
The real life story behind the upcoming movie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is not quite as glamorous and alluring as the film adaptation portends it to be. As such, you would probably do much better to enjoy the movie in standalone fashion and for what it is—a straightforward but sincere love story between an aging Hollywood star and an innocent younger kid—than to look for any meaning behind that. That other way lies madness.
Annette Bening, herself a now older though still famous movie star, plays real-life former bombshell Gloria Grahame in the waning years of her life in the late 1970s and through 1981, when she meets and falls in love with a twenty-something year old British kid named Peter Turner, played with sensual dexterity by Jamie Bell (who last appeared in The Fantastic Four in 2015). You will be forgiven for not knowing who Grahame—an Academy Award winner nonetheless—is. Though she was once quite well-known, time sort of faded her memory into the shadow of another, more famous blonde that was contemporary.
Grahame, as remembered and as portrayed by Bening, is somewhat of a sad, smaller copy of Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, with the wavy blond short haircut, the obviously softened voice, and the pouty lip look. She is now decidedly washed up, looking both for meaning and for love (probably for one within the other), as she moves into a dumpy apartment in 1970s England.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is split into many parts, some decidedly better than others. One part explores Grahame’s persona, her affected voice born out of uncertainty with the transition to talkies, and out of a clear to desire to emulate Marilyn. Another part is focused on young Peter himself who, while not a particularly profound character, is the persistent lens from which the entire story is cast.
And the movie is cut into pieces on planes other than the personages themselves. Time flies, even frustratingly and confusingly, between when the two were in love and their later years, when Gloria was bedridden due to illness in Peter’s parents’ Liverpool home but the two have separated. In yet another dimension of divergence, Peter’s walks between doors signify splices through moments of their relationship, as if he were living his life through Gloria’s, or as if he was entering and exiting one of her pictures.
Those dichotomies are actually unnecessary distractions and the weakest parts of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Director Paul McGuigan, who has helmed Lucky Number Slevin and a couple of episodes of Luke Cage, is trying too hard to make the movie more symbolic than it needs to be, to add intrigue (why are the two not together in the present time?!) that does not need to be there.
The movie is at its best when it allows itself to be, with sincerity, what it is made to be: a soapy, sweeping romance. Bening and Bell have, inexplicably, a strange sort of chemistry. Him with his striking green eyes and his young, troubled affectation. Her, with her experience, her complex expression, her always piercing pursed lips to accompany her narrowing, but searching eyes. The sexuality between the two—born at first from flirtatious and touching dancing, all the way through sickly care and the passion that falls in between those two extremes—works every time McGuigan allows himself to express it. The film becomes surprisingly touching and even heartbreaking, and a love story cannot ever accomplish that without the joint effort of both sides to the romance.
Other characters, such as the couple’s mothers (Vanessa Redgrave is Gloria’s, Julie Walters Peter’s) amble in and out of the picture to further the plot along—really, to move their relationship to the required next level, whatever that may be. But, beyond that, they do not serve a grander purpose. This is the Bening/Bell show and, if you are into kitschy romances, Shakespearean quotes, and over-dramatized feelings, you will fall for the entire concoction. Despite all the troubles with their characters as written, both Bening and Bell delivery sincere, and very personal performances.
If you are looking for anything beyond that, you will assuredly find sloppy and inconsistent story-telling, incongruent timelines, and confusing dramatic tensions. Don’t do it, and enjoy the show.
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