Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is one of those easily forgettable films whose pointlessness is transcended by the strength and charisma of its stars. It will probably never make it to anyone’s favorite movies list, though should you find yourself discussing the best performances of its two leads, Jamie Bell and Annette Bening, it wouldn’t be terribly shocking to hear the film come up.
Quaint. That’s the word. It almost feels like a relic from another era, trying its best to fit in with the standards of today. In that aim, it certainly doesn’t not succeed. Which isn’t to say it exactly succeeds, either. Outside of its two stand out performances, it neither fails nor triumphs. Rather, it simply is.
That’s potentially enough for some audiences. As a charming little love story, one could certainly do worse. While much of the film overall might be unmemorable or narratively deficient, Bell and Bening’s May-September-romance is fascinating to watch, and not just for the cinematic novelty of, for once, seeing an older woman woo a younger man.
Based on the life of actor Peter Turner, a stage performer whose memoir serves as the basis for the film, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool explores the real life romance of Tuner (Bell) and Golden Age Bombshell Gloria Grahame (Bening). Theirs is a tumultuous romance, exacerbated both by gaps in age and geography, that begins when Grahame, who has aged out of Hollywood, takes a role in a British theatrical production. Despite the difficulties of their relationship, they each do their best to make it work as best they can. That comes to a head in a very real way when Grahame is diagnosed with cancer.
Grahame’s legacy is often forgotten by casual filmgoers today, despite having co-starred in film’s like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Greatest Show on Earth, and Oklahoma!. She was, as pointed out in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, great at playing the Bad Girl, her breathy voice and undeniable beauty perfectly suited for the archetype. Bening manages to almost channel Grahame’s presence, even if her Grahame is far older and more over it than the Grahame we might remember from her roles.
Bell’s Turner, meanwhile, is fresh faced and naïve, just trying to make his mark on the theater while working odd jobs to pay rent. Their relationship is almost an accident of happenstance, with neither Grahame nor Turner being fully prepared for what lies ahead. It’s magnetic, doubly so because the two repel each other as often as they attract. Turner with his charms that are too immature to attract a woman of Grahame’s class and stature; Grahame with her aged cynicism and divaness that don’t relate to a man in his 20s.
As fascinating as it is to watch Bell and Bening work with and off each other, the film’s often too slow and too meandering to make any lasting impact. The script, from writer Matt Greenhalgh (The Look of Love, Nowhere Boy) bounces back and forth through time, from the beginning of their relationship to Grahame’s illness, which feels, contextually, like an attempt to make the story more interesting and complex than it actually is. Director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) does his best to make the story visually interesting, and often succeeds.
The time jumps are handled in a way that seems linear. Turner will walk through a door, or down a hallway, leading us to a point in the past where the narrative picks up anew. Novel at first, the trick wears thinner and thinner as the film moves on, and often the time jumps result in a detraction from the previous narrative, causing the film to lose steam as it veers towards its inevitable end.
Still, Bell and Bening are so good that it’s somewhat easy to overlook the film’s multitude of flaws. They’re each charismatic enough to pick the slack from the script, and while they don’t exactly save the film, they go a long way towards making it better. Imperfect though it may be, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is charming in its own way, and fans of heartbreaking romance will find plenty to enjoy, even if they don’t fall madly in love.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is now playing in theaters everywhere.