Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool Review

Based on a true story, this stylishly produced British drama centres around two superbly involving characters whose real-life journey doesn’t fit neatly into the usual formula. So the film continually surprises us with little details as it recounts a series of events over the course of about three years. Director Paul McGuigan (Sherlock) and writer Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy) cleverly keep the tone light with big emotional moments all along the way. And it’s also a fascinating look at one of Hollywood’s more uncomfortable truths.

It opens in 1981 Liverpool, when Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) collapses while preparing to perform in a play. In need of a place to recuperate, she reaches out to her much younger ex Peter (Jamie Bell), and asks to move in with his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham). Seeing Gloria again, Peter takes a trip through his memories of their romance over the previous three years. They met in London when he was an aspiring actor, and he followed her to New York and Los Angeles before their relationship hit the rocks. He always wondered why she dumped him, but now he’s starting to understand.

The way the flashbacks are woven into the main narrative is ingenious, as Peter literally walks into the past. This offers some powerful glimpses of the interconnections between them. It’s not quite so necessary to eventually cut to Gloria’s side of the story, although at least that offers a strikingly emotional final piece to the puzzle. Bening enjoyably makes Gloria a vain diva whose underlying insecurity makes her very likeable. Since she refuses to act her age, the gap between her and Peter never feels like an issue. And Bening develops terrific chemistry with Bell, who brings a beautifully understated rawness to Peter that’s strikingly truthful. Bell gives a riveting performance that’s never remotely obvious. And it’s also terrific to see him reunite with Walters 17 years after Billy Elliot.

So despite the cumbersome title, the film is superbly engaging. Between the artful direction and incisive script, there’s plenty of wit and romance and never a whiff of sentimentality. And while it never feels particularly deep, the movie is packed with points of resonance that linger in the mind afterwards. It’s also a rare film that confronts the way the film industry callously discards actors and actresses who don’t fit into the usual moulds. Grahame was once on a more rapid trajectory than her contemporary Marilyn Monroe, but the randomness of fate sent her in a very different direction.