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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Yeah, I feel bad for not liking this more than I did but what can you do...

This review is also on Channel 24

What it's about

Based on his own memoir and set in 1970s Liverpool, Film Stars in Liverpool tells the story of Peter Turner, an up and coming young Liverpudlian actor, whose fortuitous meeting with aging black-and-white-cinema legend, Gloria Grahame, quickly turns into a whirlwind romance with the older woman. Years later, Grahame once again connects with her former young lover in his home town after calling for him after suffering a major health crisis while headlining a small stage production there.

What we thought

There's something incredibly British about how Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool tells its Hollywood story in a way that is not at all different from your average working class, “kitchen sink” British drama. It's very small, very intimate, a bit grimy and, for me at least, a little uncomfortable.

It's also, it has to be said, largely a missed opportunity. I had never heard of Gloria Grahame before seeing the film but even the slightest bit of research reveals a truly interesting Hollywood icon whose story is absolutely worth telling. The problem is that either Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool focuses on one of the least interesting aspects of her story or it simply fails to capitalize on it by focusing too much on its May-December romance at the expense of the lady herself.

And, while no doubt a mix of my own predilections and the general societal acceptance of older men dating younger women over the reverse plays a significant part in this, I just failed to buy the central romance. Jamie Bell and Annette Bening are undeniably excellent actors and they work off each other well on screen but they never felt like a couple to me. Again, though, I'm perfectly willing to admit to this may just be nothing more than personal bias on my part.

Even taking that away, though, even if you do buy them as genuine lovers, their actual romance is very blandly written. Paul McGuigan's direction and Matt Greenhalgh's script are both way too quiet and understated in their British slice-of-life way for the romance to be called soapy – but it does come dangerously close. More than that, aside for the slightly unconventional nature of their relationship, there's just not too much too really hang your hat on. Neither character is defined well enough (the actors do a lot of the heavy lifting here) to hold much interest on their own and they're not all that more compelling as a couple.

More's the pity because there clearly is an interesting story to be told of this once-legendary Hollywood actress who never really escaped the black and white era, despite starring in some highly respected films (including It's a Wonderful Life!) and, in her prime, even being able to rival Marilyn Monroe as a sex symbol. There's some of this in the way Grahame is written here and, to be fair, quite a lot in Bening's layered performance – that slight “Betty Boop” voice coming out of a older woman is... interesting – but it is all subsumed by a very pedestrian love story.

And it's all more the pity considering just how much talent is on display both behind and in front of the camera here. McGuinan, probably still best known for Brit-Gangster flick, Gangster Number One, is clearly a talented director and the murderer's row of veteran British actors that make up the supporting cast are about as great as you expect them to be.

It's all just so boring and underwhelming, though.

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