Under the Oscar Radar: “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

by Rita Cook on January 31, 2018 in Film,
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Starring Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Graham • Rated R

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is based on a memoir written by Peter Turner about his oft-times tumultuous affair during his young acting days with Academy Award winner Gloria Graham, played beautifully by Annette Bening. Turner is portrayed in this film by Jamie Bell who some might remember for his role as the kid in “Billy Elliot.”

Jamie Bell has now grown up—and his performance beside Annette Bening in this bittersweet love story is a standout.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” gives the audience a peek inside the life of Graham after she has aged and been thrust from the Hollywood spotlight. Indeed, locked out of the Hollywood sex symbol roles she was often known for during her heyday, Graham is now left to find low-end stage roles in London as the film opens.

Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classic

Graham and Turner, who is from Liverpool, meet just as his acting career is headed up and hers down. It’s 1978 London, they’re in a boardinghouse, and Turner’s 26 years old. Graham is triple his age. As the film progresses and Graham gets closer to death (she died in 1981), it is Turner she turns to, to spend some of her last days with him at his home in Liverpool. Director Paul McGuigan takes us on the journey of these two lovers showing us how the affair progressed. In the end, we see the strength of their short affair since it was Turner that Graham chooses to spend her final days with instead of her own family.

McGuigan does a good job of bringing Turner’s memories to the big screen, based on Turner’s 1986 book. The sentimentality he touches on in a number of scenes sits well with the topic and both Bening and Bell find a good chemistry together. After all, Bening has that screen magic when she steps foot in front of the camera in most cases, and her role here as Graham is no exception. McGuigan carefully takes us with the two lovers from London to Los Angeles to New York and shares with us the couple’s lopsided, but deep relationship through an in and out series of timelines showcasing how Graham and Turner’s life collided and ended as it did.

Kenneth Cranham and Jamie Bell in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.”
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classic

Appearances by Julie Waters portraying Turner’s mother and Vanessa Redgrave as Graham’s mother also sit well, allowing the audience a deeper look at the minor characters in the couple’s story.

Bening is easily in another role here that is Academy recognizable and we can be sure this is not Bell’s last turn at a love story. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a well-done dying gasp at a look at a Hollywood film fatale and her one last claim to fame as seen through the memoirs of her young lover.

Indeed, even film stars must die, and they must die somewhere. It is heartwarming to see how Graham insisted on playing by her own rules and starring in the final chapter of her life her own way, carefully choosing her own lead characters. To that we can say she did an excellent job in choosing Turner. Kudos also to McGuigan’s ability to share a look into these memoirs with a soft-eyed, yet fiercely idealistic, story.

Rita Cook is President of the North Texas Film Critics Association. Cover photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classic