by Alistair Ryder
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a classic case of a film where the central performance is of such stature, it becomes as unforgettable as the rest of the project becomes instantly forgettable. Annette Benning completely disappears in to the lead role of Gloria Grahame, turning a caricature of a faded Hollywood starlet (in the vein of Gloria Swanson’s iconic performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard), and transforming the role in to something heartfelt and infinitely tragic. Benning is unrecognisable in the role, breathing life in to a heightened, borderline otherworldly character- and leaving you wishing director Paul McGuigan would equally be able to breathe life in to the rest of his pedestrian picture.
Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool; dir: Paul McGuigan; UK 2017, 105 mins.Our Rating: ★★½
Based on Peter Turner’s memoir, the film documents the relationship between Turner (played here by Jamie Bell, wrestling with a Scouse accent he can’t quite pull off) and Grahame, unfolding in two separate timelines. In the early eighties, Grahame unexpectedly turns up at Turner’s family home, suffering from some undisclosed condition she claims is mere “gas”- becoming bedridden, she is looked after by Peter’s mum and dad (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham), with her illness leading Peter to fantasise about their original meeting and blossoming relationship during the late seventies.
Behind the camera, McGuigan attempts to infuse proceedings with an element of magical realism. We transition through the fantasias of Peter’s memory and the sadder, more recent events via simplistic visual motifs, which mainly comprise Jamie Bell opening doors in his family home, and casually wandering in to the tapestry of some cherished (or emotionally painful) memory. There is certainly some imagination by attempting to blend the aesthetics of kitchen sink realism with a downtrodden, faded Hollywood glamour in this manner- the only issue is, the more glamorous the film attempts to become, the more constrained the film is, with the film never fully convincing as a slice of realism either. Shot entirely on soundstages in London and Liverpool, there is no disguising the fact that the scenes set across the Atlantic all look distinctively filmed on a soundstage, in front of unconvincing green screen. This is a nitpicking problem that would be easier to overlook if the film was engrossing outside of its commanding lead performance.
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh has a string of writing credits on numerous British biopics from the past ten years, with this not even being the first Liverpudlian biopic he’s penned (he’s the screenwriter of 2009’s Nowhere Boy). Looking through his filmography, you can see his writing style get considerably less gritty with age; the masterful misery of Ian Curtis biopic Control is a world away from the frothiness of this film, which still feels insubstantial even as it ventures in to more emotionally harrowing territory. It’s not that McGuigan is a director less suited to his material than those who have adapted his screenplays before- following his screenplay for 2013’s quickly forgotten The Look of Love, it’s clear to see Greenhalgh is becoming hung up on crafting biopics that combine realist grit and a kitsch look at the glamour of previous generations. However, this isn’t to say McGuigan’s choices help elevate the material in any way, with several minor character details that feel unintentionally hilarious most likely not originating in the screenplay- namely making Stephen Graham (in a supporting role as Peter’s brother) wear a wig straight out of Harry Enfield’s scousers sketch.
In fact, the most irritating thing about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool may be the fact that its lightweight nature makes it easy to overlook elements that are commendable. This is a film that depicts a sexually intimate relationship between an older woman and a younger man that isn’t a source of cheap laughs- and outside of Grahame’s own disapproving family, are not judged for the age gap in their relationship. In some places the drama gets emotionally manipulative, but there is a maturity in the handling of their relationship that is the most convincing thing in the film, rarely calling itself out as a significant factor. Bell’s performance may be wobbly, but he does help sell the earnestness of his character’s deep physical attraction to Grahame- it’s not hard to wish the rest of the film was pitched at this level, aiming to explore an age gap relationship without prejudice, instead of rushing the story forward to plunder the usual biopic cliches.
Director Paul McGuigan has spent the last decade making forgettable Hollywood fare (from Lucky Number Slevin to 2015’s humongous flop Victor Frankenstein), with his transition back to “serious” filmmaking only standing out in his filmography due to an electric lead performance. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is ultimately a forgettable, albeit earnest, attempt to tell a Hollywood story that takes place almost entirely on this side of the pond- and proves itself to be an uninspired depiction of a fascinating and deeply sad real life story.