Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool Movie Review
(L-R): Annette Bening and Jamie Bell star in director Paul McGuigan’s romantic biopic, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’

Title: ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’

Director: Paul McGuigan

Starring: Annette Bening and Jamie Bell

Being a real female maverick who never plays games that hurt people, especially in the Hollywood system, is a feat that should be continuously highlighted and celebrated, no matter what situation they’re contending with, or what era they live in. That’s certainly the case with acclaimed Hollywood actress, Gloria Grahame, who garnered fame in the 1940s and ’50s for her performances in film noirs features. Along with her physical beauty, she had a powerful sense of herself, the characters she played and the people she surrounded with in the movie business.

The fact that Grahame always maintained her own sense of self, and was ahead of her time, especially in supporting the woman’s movement, is highlighted in the new biopic, ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’ The romantic drama, which was directed by Paul McGuigan and written by Matt Greenhalgh, not only honors the actress’ determination to always honor her ideals, but also commemorates her strong bond with one of her lovers, Peter Turner. The movie, which is based on Turner’s 1987 memoir of the same name, screened for a packed crowd at the Trustees Theater on Tuesday night during the SCAD Savannah Film Festival.

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ follows the playful but passionate relationship between Peter (Jamie Bell) and Gloria (Annette Bening). When the duo first meets in 1978 in the title city, the aspiring British actor is immediately drawn to the eccentric, American Academy Award-winning actress, who’s in England to star in a play, in an attempt to keep her career viable. What starts as a vibrant affair between the young thespian and legendary femme fatale quickly morphs into a deeper emotional connection, despite their 28-year age difference.

However, with Gloria’s height of fame from the ’40s and ’50s waning, she decides to continue working, in an effort to reclaim her former glory. She even refuses to give up her work after she first receives the devastating news that her breast cancer, which she was first diagnosed with in the mid-’70s, has returned. She also refuses to seek treatment, and initially hides her prognosis from her friends and family. The duo’s love becomes strained after they decide to spend time together in New York City, as Gloria decides on her own that it’s best for Peter if she doesn’t share her declining health with him.

After the duo ends their romantic relationship, Peter decides to return to his family home in England. As Gloria’s health continues to deteriorate, she decides to call upon her former lover and finally reveal her health battle with him. She asks to spend her final days with him at his home in Liverpool, and they reflect on their time together and her overall life.

Bening and Bell were perfectly cast in their respective roles as Grahame and Turner in ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.’ The four-time Oscar-nominated Bening powerfully connected with, and lost herself in, the biopic’s leading female protagonist, as she has long harbored ambitions to play Grahame on the screen. After Turner released his memoir about his relationship with Grahame, Bening became enamored with the complexities of the actress as a screen goddess and as a person. The biopic’s lead star’s dedication and commitment to bringing her real-life character and her unique relationship to the screen was enthrallingly profound

The fascination Bening has with Grahame began when she was making the 1990 film, ‘The Grifters,’ for which she received her first Academy Award nomination, with director Stephen Frears. The filmmaker suggested that she watch Grahame’s movies while they were making the noiresque crime thriller, since Grahame holds a special place in the noir period of the ’50s. Since that first introduction to Grahame, Bening naturally picked up on her screen presence, and stayed dedicated to making, and releasing, a biopic about her for the next quarter century.

With ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ being drawn from Turner’s memoir, the movie is told largely from his perspective, so finding the right actor for the role was imperative. McGuigan, along with the drama’s producers, notably Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines, who long championed to bring Grahame and Turner’s story to the screen, rightfully cast Bell as the male protagonist in the film adaptation. The BAFTA Award-winning English actor passionately offers an intimate look into his on-screen counterpart’s point of view into his relationship with Grahame. He also believably understood all the emotional complexities of his character, and how Grahame has affected him for his whole life.

In addition to Bening and Bell’s dynamic and commanding understanding of their respective characters’ motivations and personalities, and their compelling on-screen representation of the couple’s emotional relationship, McGuigan and the movie’s cinematographer, Urszula Pontikos, offered an intriguing visual insight into the electrifying connection. The story in the film is told out of chronological order, so there are a number of interesting transitions between different scenes that the director and cinematographer decided to use. The filmmakers used a lot of fascinating transitions where the actors would turn from one set and end up in another set. Gloria and Peter would walk through a door from one setting and would end up in another, completely unexpected location, which powerfully helped make the connection between the couple’s varying points-of-views.

In addition to the alluring transitions between the distinct settings, McGuigan grippingly showcased several important emotional scenes between Gloria and Peter from both of their perspectives. The decision offers audiences a gratifying fulfillment in getting to better understand both characters’ motivations.

The most notable scene that shows both Gloria and Peter’s mindsets is when they end their romantic relationship in her New York apartment. The reiterations show much of the same dialogue and interactions between the two. But Gloria’s point-of-view, which is presented after Peter’s perspective, offers just enough of a difference to perfectly allow the audience to fully understand why she felt that she had to let him go, since she doesn’t truly explain her motives to him in the moment.

‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is an emotionally and visually tantalizing depiction of the strong connection between Grahame and Turner. The perfect casting of, and subsequent connection between, Bening and Bell show what a true female maverick Grahame was, both in the Hollywood system and in real life, and how supportive Turner was of her decisions. Linked with the intriguing visual insight into the couple’s electrifying connection through Pontikos’ stunning cinematography, McGuigan crafted the epitome of biopics that perfectly supports Grahame’s legacy.

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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