In 1981, following a good few years in the showbiz wilderness, Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (inhabited here by an electric Annette Bening) finds herself backstage prepping for a stage production, far detached from the Hollywood scene she was a stalwart of throughout the 1950s. Though aged, there’s a spark still evident – a spark that doesn’t leave someone who’s made a career out of captivation – but she’s ill. Very ill.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool tells the story of the two preceding years, how she falls in and out of love with a struggling younger thespian played note-perfect by Jamie Bell, and the following few weeks, where she returns to his family home in Liverpool to be looked after. Pieced together through dreamlike vignettes, we follow them from their first meeting – a drunken, feverish dance party in the North London halfway house they share – to a plush suite in New York, via the beaches of Southern California-like rooms on the same set.
Bening and Bell are in career-best form as the improbable lovers, with their romance not only plausible but truly engaging; the former is a maelstrom of intense, heartbreaking unpredictability, while Bell gives perhaps his finest performance to date with a crushingly human turn. Rounding off the cast we find Julie Walters in predictably brilliant form alongside a brief but memorable cameo from Vanessa Redgrave who plays Grahame’s mother Jeanne McDougall. Elsewhere we find a follicly-enhanced Stephen Graham (a good luck charm for any Merseyside-based project) filling out a real best-of-British ensemble.
Anchored by the immensely affecting chemistry of two spellbinding, potentially awards-worthy performances, what could’ve descended into schmaltz makes for an intimately charming snapshot of what it means to age, to love, and to fight against whatever stands in the way of either.
CAST: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham
DIRECTOR: Paul McGuigan
WRITERS: Matt Greenhalgh (screenplay), Peter Turner (based on the memoir by)
SYNOPSIS: In the twilight of her career, 1950s movie star Gloria Grahame finds herself doing stage work in London, falling for a younger man before illness threatens.