Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell have been rarely better than in this intimate and tender spring-autumn love story

Film Review by Christopher Machell | 14 Nov 2017
  • Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Film title: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
Director: Paul McGuigan
Starring: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Vanessa Redgrave
Release date: 16 Nov
Certificate: 15

Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, winning an Oscar for her turn in The Bad and the Beautiful. But as colour films became the norm, Grahame's noirish star waned into obscurity. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool tells the story of her late-life romance with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), on whose book the film is based.

Director Paul McGuigan's film is an unusual mixture of Hollywood tribute and kitchen sink drama, combining the working-class locales of Ken Loach with the old-school techniques of back projection and in-camera optical effects, which are put to great use in the film's numerous flashbacks. The result is a tremendously sensitive and complex portrayal of a forgotten star, which forgoes caricature in favour of a deeply personal story that is by turns sensitive, warm and melancholy.

On first glance, Bening hardly resembles the pouting Grahame of In A Lonely Place, but archival footage used in the film reveals their shared soft features, and Bening's whispery voice is a dead ringer for Grahame's. By turns sensual, vulnerable and volatile, Bening embodies her character's humanity in its totality and complexity. It is to her immense credit that the infirm Grahame that Turner takes home to Liverpool is indistinguishable from the effortlessly vivacious one we see in the London-set sequences.

Bell, too, has never been better as young actor Turner, and seeing him on screen with Julie Walters for the first time since Billy Elliot – the film that made him – is not only lovely to see, but ties into the film's wider themes of fame and the ebb and flow of careers in showbiz. The sexual chemistry his character initially shares with Bening’s is palpable, and it evolves into a real, believable relationship.

In the classic 1950 noir Sunset Boulevard, faded star Norma Desmond declares that "I'm still big: it was the pictures that got small". Film Stars is a small picture, but in its intimate, tender portrayal of a forgotten icon of the screen, it is all the better for it.

Released by Lionsgate