“Annette Bening is mesmerising as the enigmatic actress with the twinkle in her eye but whose star is now on the wane…”
Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (FSDDIL from here on in), is a proper weepy, chronicling the final years in the life of Oscar-winning actress, Gloria Grahame.
Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), is a young up-and-coming actor from Liverpool who lives in a boarding house in London. It just so happens that the actress, Gloria Grahame, is temporarily residing here too whilst she ‘treads the boards’ in the theatres of the capital and beyond, and when the two meet one day, an unlikely romance quickly blossoms.
Whilst Gloria is all flirtatious winks and alluring Hollywood magnetism, it’s clear that she is decidedly insecure in herself, as time will reveal. Whilst understandably enchanted by her considerably younger lover, she is ill-at-ease with the sizeable age difference that exists between them, and can be quick to anger with regard to this.
Nevertheless, theirs is a relationship built on far more than superficiality or shifting sands, and though it’s probably fair to surmise that Peter offers her both the adulation that she craves and the opportunity to wind back the clock and once again live in a bubble of self-congratulatory fantasy, it is a genuine bond of love that develops between them, and the two actors play out their romance cross two continents – the very stuff of Hollywood dreams.
But of course every great romantic story often gives way to tragedy, and it will be Grahame’s unmentioned recent flirtation with serious illness, that will soon come to determine the ultimate course of the couple’s union.
FSDDIL switches back and forth over a two or three year period in the late 70’s / early 80’s, and in doing so, is able to gradually fill in the detail of the couple’s time together. Most noticeable is that McGuigan’s piece feels very focused at the expense of any unnecessarily distracting peripheral events; focused that is upon its two chief protagonists, and a core supporting cast whose parts may, in some cases, be only fleeting, yet nonetheless always feel wholly integral to the story’s narrative.
Subsequently the film’s rather scrutinous approach to characterisation results in a thorough, satisfyingly rounded, three-dimensional examination of its actors, and in doing so, builds tremendous levels of emotional intensity and involvement for its audience.
Of course, you can relentlessly scrutinise your actors through a camera lens all you like, but without that necessary stardust, you’re on a hiding to nothing, and so it’s fortunate that FSDDIL boasts a cast at the very top of their game.
Annette Bening is mesmerising as the enigmatic actress with the twinkle in her eye but whose star is now on the wane, whilst Jamie Bell is all openly-emotive raw energy and enthusiasm, portraying Grahame’s considerably younger lover.
Julie Walters, needless to say, is reliably marvellous as Turner’s mother, Bella; the archetypal Northern, working class mum and the very glue that holds the Turner household together through trying times.
Bening will rightly receive many plaudits for her portrayal of Grahame’s final years, but it’s important that we recognise Jamie Bell’s part in it too. His is an emotionally engaging performance of some maturity and possibly his finest to date.
With a nicely curated soundtrack of sympathetic score and choice songs from the era, and a brave directorial decision to name check the better blue footballing half of Liverpool over the city’s unmentionable red namesake – something that had me scrutinising the closing credits for evidence of some form of Bill Kenwright involvement – Paul McGuigan’s FSDDIL is a beautifully realised romantic drama of some weight and distinction.