Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Matt Greenhalgh
The past is often viewed through a rosier lens than the present, which means we often give it more credit than its due. Sunset Blvd. is one of Hollywood’s great film, and it features the story of an older actress, a star of the silent films, whose relevance and notoriety has waned significantly with the onset of sound. While there is much can be said about that film, one which I hold in very high regard as one of the best I’ve ever seen, I bring it up in this review because the story of Gloria Grahame is not all too dissimilar from Norma Desmond (not to mention Desmond is played by another Gloria (Swanson)). Their characters arcs can’t be compared, but when it comes to once great Hollywood actresses living out their lives out of the public eye but still yearning for that confirmation, for that validation as a beautiful actress, the comparison is apt.
Based on a memoir by Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool follows the final years in famed Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame’s (Annette Bening) life, which was spent in Liverpool, England on the stage. Also an actor in Liverpool, Turner strikes up a friendship with Grahame, which quickly turns into a romance, despite their significant age difference. Their romance, however, is soon disrupted by the onset of Gloria’s mysterious illness. She complains often of having gas, and despite taking measures to eat healthy (by asking Peter to run to the local Health Store), she still smokes plenty of cigarettes. When Peter discovers the illness is worse than Gloria had let on, he takes measures to make sure he is there with her to comfort her, even if she doesn’t even want her own family yet to come.
While I compared this to Sunset Blvd. in a very minor way, comparing the quality of the two pictures would be a crime, and one I plan not to commit. Much like the plot summary I attempted to write in the previous paragraph, this film is one which starts with intrigue and quickly rambles about to not hold much heft. Narratively speaking, this film is a drag and a bit of a bore. There are dynamics at play here that are interesting enough to explore: the age difference between Gloria and Peter, the acceptance of Gloria by Peter’s family, but the rejection of Peter by Gloria’s. Even Gloria’s own personal struggles with self-worth and ambition are luminously brought to the screen by Annette Bening, who herself is older than Grahame was in real life. But in the end, it’s a story that comes and goes and failed to make me care, perhaps largely because we get to know so very little about Gloria’s counterpart in the romance, Peter.
There is plenty to like about the filmmaking of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, however. Director Paul McGuigan peppers the film with various filmmaking flourishes which make for a much more interesting watch than the otherwise drab story has to offer. Smart edits which bring together two disparate scenes, creating a sense of stage for these two actors to live out their life together. The soundtrack also, in particular, is full of great choices which pair with the film quite well. The best of this film are the lead performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell, who more than holds his own against the subtle brilliance of Bening. Between this and 20th Century Women, Bening has seen a great resurgence in her career. She is perhaps just as good here. Just a shame that it comes in an otherwise unremarkable film.
I wanted to like this film a lot more than I ended up liking it, which wasn’t much. It starts so strong, and had me hooked early, but as I said, it manages to ramble along and waste any good fortune it had assembled by pretending that we would care about two characters whose romance ends up feeling rushed and whose back stories, particularly Peter, feel all but non-existent. Even a hint of more of the past for either would instantly enhance the story and bring more understanding to the dynamics at play between them. McGuigan’s filmography is not one that impresses, or suggests a potential breakout. He includes just enough impressive directorial touches for this film to not be a disaster, but given his track record, I also don’t think I’ll be looking forward for his newest project with bated breath. Annette Bening on the other hand has my full attention.