Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by Paul McGuigan is a beautifully made adaptation of a true love story that’s stranger than fiction.
Femme Fataleby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In 1981, former Hollywood star and Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), star of The Bad and the Beautiful, collapses while on a provincial tour in a theatre production of The Glass Menagerie. If her being in rep in Lancaster not extraordinary enough in itself, she calls for help to her ex-lover, small-time Liverpudlian actor Peter Thompson (Jamie Bell). She goes back with him to the terraced house in working-class Liverpool where he lives in with his parents, and is installed in their spare room – she’s clearly more seriously ill than she admits. Fans of Grahame in their youth, his down-to-earth parents welcome her generously and without showing surprise. His mother (Julie Walters) is kind and caring, his father (Kenneth Cranham) quietly hits the nail on the head with his comments on the unlikeliness of the situation, but his brother (Stephen Graham) is resentful and feels she should be with her own family.
In cleverly manipulated flashbacks, the course of Peter’s and Gloria’s incredible past relationship is revealed. It started in an equally unlikely way, when they were both in theatrical digs in Primrose Hill, London. Though faded, Gloria is still beautiful, seductive, capricious and captivating. The young man falls under her spell, yet their flirtation blossoms into a genuine love affair. He goes to live with her in an idyllic beach house in Los Angeles, where he meets her polite but off-putting mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and hostile sister. But in New York their relationship founders and director Paul McGuigan subtly slides in an out of time to reprise the breakup so that we see both points of view for added poignancy.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is adapted from Peter Thompson’s own memoir of the same title. Bening superbly captures Grahame’s way of talking, fears of ageing, and her old-school allure that has lost none of its technique despite her age and how, having been in movies all her life, she cannot help but confuse reality and fiction – as by relying on the kindness of the Thompsons she almost morphs into a Blanche Dubois figure. Jamie Bell creates a characterisation of depth and maturity that makes his relationship with Grahame completely believable. Their chemistry together is superb. The moving, well-judged, wonderfully acted film has humour, compassion, tenderness, kindness and sadness that is even more moving because it all basically happened.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool screens at the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 11, 12 and 15 October 2017.