Film review: “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (2017)

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (2017)



Running Time: 106 minutes

Written by: Matt Greenhalgh

Directed by:  Paul McGuigan

Featuring:  Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Frances Barber and Leanne Best

Peter Turner: “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Lauren Bacall when you smoke?”

Gloria Grahame: “Humphrey Bogart. And I didn’t like it then either.”

Each year there are a number of films that are lost in the awards race, with coverage really only given to those films deemed ‘important’ or topical so that there can be conversations about issues that are important to parts of society, this year there were many of those with topics such as race, gender, human identity and a variety of others. The problem is that many other films are brushed aside, only to be discovered in other mediums, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (2017) is possibly one of those films. This film is a period piece, set in an non-sexy part of England as well as addressing something most people do not like to think of, old age as well as death – it also deals with an aging actress as well as her much younger paramour. Of course, like many films there is so much more than initially meets the eye, making it a touching, romantic story without cynicism or melancholy, certainly not attached to sentimentality. What is striking is the way in which there is a realness to the topics, an almost kitchen sink aspect that is to uncommon in film, found mostly in English televison.

This is yet another late year (from 2017) adaption of not only a novel but something based around real events, the book written by Pete Turner (played by Jamie Bell) and adapted by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, directed by veteran Paul McGuigan is a textbook example on how to bring to life not an entire story but part of two peoples interactions that ended up having huge impacts on both in very different and meaningful ways. This movie is full of surprises with a deft touch behind the camera as well as some truly memorable performances that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Given that the budget of this film is modest, there is much done with the resources that are available – sometimes the cracks show, but not too often.

The film concerns Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) who finds romance and happiness with a younger man (Jamie Bell), but her life changes forever when she is diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s. The film is actually full of twists with a narrative that uses a flash back interspaced with moments from the ‘present’ which works incredibly well as there is a mystery at the center, albeit one that most can relate to, in the finding of love, then the mystery of its breakdown for the basest of reasons.

This may seem like an oversimplification or trite to say but it is not easy being a movie star, in any time. There is a reason that many have addiction issues, go under the knife, have extremely volatile relationships and tragedy can be a bedfellow. It is their face (and body) that is on a large screen as large as a side of a building, being judged continuously by friends, colleagues and the public itself. A star may find acceptance for a while but the public can be fickle and if they stop showing up at your movies then the slide occurs and your career can be tough indeed. There are reasons why box office success can be fleeting even if it seems to last for a while, just ask action stars of the 1980s and 1990s, or dramatic actors who now either are in small parts or always trying to make comebacks.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” concerns Oscar winning actress Gloria Grahame who had been in big Hollywood dramas as well as a film noir actress from 1946 to through to 1981, although her final Hollywood film of any real note was 1955. The movie does act as a kind of cautionary tale not only about Hollywood but also health care as well as the importance of seeing things through, professionally, personally and in terms of keeping good health.

One of the first elements of this film that is striking is the cast who are all outstanding as well as committed and completely dedicated which leads to the believability of the situations each of them find themselves in. Firstly, is leading lady Annette Bening who is close to Grahams age when she died so there a double meaning here, it shows that while in Grahams day the parts dried up as she approached forty, Bening has never been short of parts, in fact since turning forty she has had three Oscar nominations. Here Bening has to play a part on many levels she has to show someone who is strong, has been through the ringer, seen many of her friends die as well as be fragile with a sensuality that bursts off the screen into a young man’s life – we have to believe that we could fall in love with her. Then there is the leading man in Jamie Bell who is playing someone who is struggling as an actor then meets someone who he knows as a. legend, gets to know her then falls in love with her not caring about the age difference. Bell is playing possibly the first real character of his career, set in a time when he is unable to rely on complex effects or other more experienced actors, in my mind this is his first grown up, real role and he succeeds in every aspect of it. The cast is rounded out by acting legends Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham who all do what they do best as characters supporting the story, they all steal the scenes they are in. Finally, in an all too fleeting appearance is Stephen Graham as Bell’s brother who as you would expect is a breath of fresh air as well as realism in very tense situations.

This film has been expertly adapted and directed by Matt Greenhalgh and Paul McGuigan two artists who have much experience in their respective fields so it is no surprise that “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” has turned out as well as it has. The use of music as well as well as the settings are expertly deployed as are the themes that are examined throughout the running time. Not once do you ever wonder why the emotions that are being felt by the two leads are so fierce, they just are, we are lucky enough to see their experiences and in some cases from different perspectives, and really isn’t that what life is all about. Without giving too much away it is obvious from the opening moments of the movie that we are dealing with a person in Graham that has lived most of her life either on a stage or in front of a camera, carefully manipulating what her family, friends and the public see of her – there is everything to hide, almost nothing is true, even with her new beau, he is on the outside looking in at what she wants him to know – a façade which we see employed expertly in the opening five minutes of the film. Look closely at the use of music and the application of Grahams stage make-up, that will let you know what you are in for.

This is simply one of the best dramas of the past year that is a period piece not content to rely on a veiled history or tinged look at Hollywood – in fact the entire film that is about a star is as far away from that Babylon as possible. This is about people who love each other but are hindered by what is perceived to be real or important, this should be seen on the big screen as the mise en scène is so well thought out and the use of colour so deep that the widest screen is your best option

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is on release in New Zealand right now.

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