The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Review: Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool (UK Cert 15)

Actress Gloria Grahame was a big star in the 1940s and 1950s. Appearing in such films as It's A Wonderful Life, The Big Heat, and Oklahoma! and sharing the screen with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, and Charlton Heston, she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Bad And The Beautiful. Later in life, she focused more on stage work. Whilst in London in the late 1970s, she met a young actor called Peter Turner and the two quickly fell into a relationship. When Gloria became ill, she felt that she could recover in Liverpool and stayed with Peter and his parents. This amazing stranger-than-fiction true story formed the basis of Peter's memoir, Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, which has now been adapted for film. 

Directed by Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Push) from a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, the film stars Annette Bening as Gloria and Jamie Bell as Peter. 

Bening is superb as Grahame. A fesity, flirty, firecracker of a woman, unashamed of her past and embracing her future. She isn't a Norma Desmond figure, living for past glories. She's a working actress, doing what she can. It's a livewire performance and one of Bening's best. The film uses footage from Grahame's films and publicity photos, but refreshingly they don't do the usual trick of superimposing Bening-as-Grahame in the original's place (as the film focuses on Grahame towards the end of her life, it would seem strange for them to do that).There's a beautiful poignancy to the final scenes, as Gloria bows to the inevitable, and she and Peter share a heart-rending scene on the stage of the Liverpool Playhouse. A truly wonderful central performance. 

Matching her in intensity and brio is Bell as her younger lover. A working-class lad from Liverpool, he's made his way as an actor (although with no great success). He meets Gloria in London and eventually gets swept up in her world; one that's a thousand miles away from what he's used to. I love that he's rough round the edges (but is never treated as Gloria's 'bit of rough'). Also good is that Peter never exploits Gloria's fame or reputation to further himself; he genuinely seems to love her for who she is (indeed, he seems shocked when the barman tells him that Gloria once won an Oscar). It's a strong performance by Bell who has firmly put Billy Elliot behind him- although it's lovely to see him dancing round Gloria's room at the start. 

Supporting roles are well filled, with Julie Walters as reliably brilliant as ever as Peter's mum Bella. What could have been a stereotypical Scouse ma, fretting over ever detail, is elevated by Walters' wonderfully nuanced performance. Kenneth Cranham is great as Peter's dad Joe, whilst Stephen Graham rounds out the family unit nicely as Peter's brother. Vanessa Redgrave gets a great scene as Gloria's mother whilst Frances Barber is nicely venomous as Gloria's catty sister Joy, who casually lays out over dinner that Gloria's fourth husband was her stepson from her second marriage (which caused a real-life scandal in the 1960s).

The script is fairly solid although there are several instances that are mentioned that it would have been nice to see dramatised- the shopping trip to get Gloria's 'ruby red slippers', or seeing Gloria in the Turners' kitchen making a bacon butty, for example. Also, the script is non-linear- it starts with Gloria's collapse in Leicester as she prepares to go on stage in The Glass Menagerie and then bounces around both time and location- from London to Los Angeles, New York to Liverpool- to tell the story of Gloria and Peter's relationship. In itself this isn't necessarily an issue but sometimes the bridging between flashbacks is a bit clunky- opening a door in the present to find you're in the past. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. 

Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool should appeal to fans of classic cinema as it tells a compelling and (I'm assuming) not widely known story. A fine ensemble cast give some of the strongest performances I've seen on film this year. 

Rating: 4 out of 5


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