Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
by Hope Madden
Jamie Bell is a versatile, talented actor too often relegated to minor roles.
Annette Bening has always been a powerful performer.
Director Paul McGuigan—Victor Frankenstein, Lucky Number Slevin, Wicker Park—is, unfortunately, just not that good.
So, there you have it. In their collaboration, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Bening and Bell generate honest chemistry while imbuing their characters with relatable flaws and beauty. McGuigan surrounds them with flashy staging conceits and the single ugliest wallpaper the world has ever known.
It’s 1979 in Liverpool, and struggling young actor Peter Turner (Bell) makes the acquaintance of his quirky new neighbor, former silver screen siren Gloria Graham (Bening).
A one-time Oscar winner fallen on hard times, pretty, flirty and nearly 30-years his senior, Gloria is a mystery to Turner and, in turn, to us. Here is where the two leads rise above their script to develop something touching and lovely, something that mines the earth between starstruck and true love. It’s wonderful to behold.
Bening adopts a baby voice as she oscillates between headstrong and insecure, but she seems to fully understand this figure who, in her time, was a daily scandal. Bening moves from seductress to damaged old woman and back again with fluidity and without excuses.
Here’s how McGuigan wrecks it.
1) We get it. It’s the Seventies. Does every surface—including co-star Stephen Graham’s head—have to be covered in garish, patterned shag? The costume and set design are beyond distracting. They will actually make you dizzy.
2) Bening cannot help but pique your interest in Gloria Graham’s life, and several courtship scenes expose something unique and quite worth an entire film. Unfortunately, the movie itself is a maudlin exercise in watching the decay of a once-vibrant woman, punctuated by flashes of that vibrancy.
3) He picks at themes of humanizing that which we objectify, even using fun visual nods to the seductive artifice of movies to slide between time spans, but he can’t truly abandon blandly by-the-numbers storytelling.
Which is a shame because, between the two stellar leads and a handful of amazing supporting turns (Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber leave marks) there was really something here.