It’s Mainly Liverpudlians

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.

Fightin’ Words

Darkest Hour

by Hope Madden

Back in the day—before the mustachioed Commissioner Gordon or the bewitching Sirius Black—back in the way back of the 80s and 90s, Gary Oldman was known for disappearing into real-life characters. Whether it was his Sid Vicious or Lee Harvey Oswald or Ludwig Van Beethoven, Oldman could cease to be, leaving nothing behind but the most amazing reimagining of true life.

So the fact that he’s magnificent in Darkest Hour should come as no surprise.

Besides his physical transformation, thanks to what may be the single greatest achievement in fat suits in all of moviedom, Oldman convinces by capturing the spirit of Winston Churchill.

In retrospect we know Churchill’s fighting spirit was desperately necessary— his nation was facing unfathomable odds and dealing with an establishment’s inclination toward surrender. But it’s Oldman’s performance that makes us understand why so very few were able to trust not just Churchill’s vision, but Churchill.

With the aid of an excellent turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine, Oldman makes the Prime Minister knowable: driven, insecure, passionate, drunk, uncertain, romantic and somehow lovable. The performance is effortlessly layered and authentic and honestly the best work the veteran actor has done in decades.

Credit a crisp screenplay by Anthony McCarten for providing context by way of illuminating points of view, each one deftly animated by an understated ensemble delivering nuanced performances. Ben Mendelsohn’s King George and Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax, in particular, quietly but assuredly manifest the uneasy but shifting perspective of a nation on the brink of possible annihilation.

Joe Wright’s direction sometimes feels fanciful given the seriousness of the story, but he works mightily with his poetic camera to enliven what could otherwise have been a claustrophobic chamber piece.

Instead, he’s crafted a fine bookend to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Darkest Hour glimpses the backroom politics that led to the ingenious and breathless rescue of England’s armed forces the summer of 1940. It lacks the gut-punch or cinematic mastery of Nolan’s film, but it does boast one hell of a performance.