Annette Bening can tell you everything you need to know about her character in a single unfolding scene. It’s always rewarding to see her in action, even though her latest movie, “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool,” doesn’t measure up to her performance.
Bening plays the once-lustrous Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, who’s been touring the English provinces in a stage production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Alone and frightened after falling desperately ill, Gloria turns to a much younger man, and sometime actor, she’d had an affair with several years earlier, starting in 1978: his name is Peter Turner, and he’s played—quite charmingly—by Jamie Bell. “I’ll get better,” she tells Peter, sitting in bed in his family’s modest Liverpool home. Her tone is bright but beseeching, and scarily detached; she wants him to believe what she doesn’t believe herself. In no time flat, and with a full spectrum of emotional colors, Bening gives us a portrait of a shattered woman who has come back to a place where love once was.
The film was directed by Paul McGuigan from an adaptation of Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name. The screenplay, by Matt Greenhalgh, flashes back to the couple’s first meeting in a London boarding house, where a radiantly charming Gloria is eager to dance, and finds a superb partner in Peter: Jamie Bell you may remember, made his movie debut 17 years ago in the title role of the aspiring young dancer in “Billy Elliott.” Subsequent flashbacks evoke the couple’s romantic, or turbulent, encounters in California and New York, and their breakup, in Manhattan, is examined—and belabored—from his point of view and then hers.
The movie’s mosaic structure weakens the story’s impact, since it hops all over the place, and it can’t create drama, of which there’s isn’t much in the story of two people falling in and then out of love. Then there’s the problem of the film’s predictability. When Gloria is in terrible pain at the outset and insists that it’s only gas, we know better, but knowing doesn’t make the heart beat faster.
“Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” is an interesting footnote to Hollywood history: Gloria Grahame, a distinctive star with an inimitable style, did have a love affair with an Englishman almost 30 years her junior; did fall on hard times, and then, in physical and spiritual torment, did seek support and solace in her former lover. The fleshing out of the story feels thin, and sometimes nakedly contrived, as in a passage toward the end when Peter and Gloria, on an empty stage in a local theater, recite lines to each other from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Yet the film has moments of surprising grace and tenderness. Above all it has Annette Bening’s Gloria, still alive to the world when she’s in danger of leaving it.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics