The life of a movie star has to be profoundly strange, as the whims of the industry can put you on top of the world in a flash, and just as quickly deposit you in the world of the forgotten. Gloria Grahame won an Oscar in 1952, played opposite Humphrey Bogart, and headlined films like Oklahoma! and The Big Heat, but odds are that even seasoned film aficionados don't know her name now.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool deals only tangentially with the prime of her career, instead focusing on her declining years. It is directed by Paul McGuigan and adapted by Matt Greenhalgh from Peter Turner's memoir.
As the story begins, Grahame (Annette Bening) takes ill before her theater performance in London in 1981. She calls Turner (Jamie Bell) for help, and he and his family agree to let her stay in their home in Liverpool to recuperate.
His relationship to her, at first, is unclear. The film gradually reveals that Grahame and Turner have a romantic history, despite a nearly 30-year age gap. Turner, an aspiring actor himself, had a serendipitous meeting with Grahame, and the two started a torrid, if eyebrow-raising, love affair.
The story alternates back and forth in time, coloring in the lines of their relationship, Grahame's erratic health status, and other relevant details. How invested you become in the film may depend on whether you believe it's possible for people of such disparate ages to truly find love with each other.
McGuigan and his team have crafted a perfectly lovely film, one that gently gets across that love is love, no matter what form it may take. The tone is wistful, as McGuigan uses clever techniques to transition between time periods that are literal and metaphorical opening and closing of doors.
Truthfully, nothing much of consequence happens for most of the running time, so the story depends on the sublime performances of Bening and Bell. Channeling Grahame, Bening speaks with a high voice throughout the film. And with her youthfully blonde hair, she looks and sounds, oddly, like a young Melanie Griffith. It works like a charm, though. You can feel every bit of Grahame's hope, despair, love, and desperation.
Bening is complemented extremely well by Bell, who gives a career-best performance. The one-time Billy Elliot star is a force both through his physicality and his acting. He exudes confidence, but has the wherewithal to make his character sensitive and relatable. Special mention should also be made of the fantastic actors playing Peter's family, including Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, and Stephen Graham.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is an actors' showcase through-and-through, and it brings deserved attention to a true star of a bygone era.