Annette Bening brings sauciness and pathos to her portrayal of fallen movie star Gloria Grahame in Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” but the film, based on the memoir by Peter Turner recounting his troubled romance with the actress in her twilight years, is sluggish and strangely unaffecting.
Though the script by Matt Greenhalgh switches between past and present throughout—not confusingly, thanks to Nick Emerson’s editing, which is ponderous but at least clear—the narrative effectively begins in 1978, when Turner (Jamie Bell), a wannabe actor from Liverpool, met Grahame in the London boarding house where they had both taken rooms while she performed on the stage. Though nearly three decades older, and a full twenty-seven years after winning her supporting actress Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful,” her still coquettishly sultry ways entranced the young man, and they began a passionate romance that even took the pair to America. (One of the few lightly amusing scenes in the picture comes when they go to “Alien” together, and while he’s horrified by the famous chest-bursting sequence, she giggles over it.)
The film barely touches on the actress’ checkered past—there’s no mention, for example, of her scandalous fourth marriage to Tony Ray, the stepson with whom she apparently had relations while he was in his teens and she was still married to his father, director Nicholas Ray—though it does contain a juicy scene in California where she introduces Turner to her gushing mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her cynical, censorious sister (Frances Barber), who is ironically named Joy. It was when they were in New York that their relationship deteriorated, and Peter returned home to Liverpool.
A couple of years later, Graham returned to England, though quite ill with cancer, to act again on the stage. (By then she was, to quote the title of one of her best films, in a lonely place.) Unable to continue, she got in touch with Turner and asked to stay with his family—a request that his parents Bella (Julie Walters) and Joe (Kenneth Granham) readily agreed to, though his elder brother Joe Jr. (Stephen Graham) was doubtful. Through her visit Grahame grew sicker until her son arrived to take her back to the United States, where she died shortly afterward.
The centerpiece of the picture, naturally, is the relationship between Grahame and Turner, and Bening brings a mercurial quality to the once-famous star in the 1979 scenes and a touching vulnerability to her in the 1982 ones. The performance could be called showy, but in a good way. Unfortunately, she isn’t matched by Bell, whose dourly mechanical turn exhibits little nuance even when Peter fulfills, in a modest way, her dream of performing Shakespeare on the London stage. Walters, who played Bell’s teacher in “Billy Elliott,” is surprisingly unsubtle as Turner’s mother, and as his father Granham is distinguished mainly by the succession of colorful sweaters he wears as part of the ostentatious period style contrived by costumer Jany Jemime and production designer Eve Stewart. Redgrave and Barber add some much-needed snap to their single scene, however.
“Film Stars” does manage to be visually evocative, with atmospheric widescreen color cinematography by Urszula Pontikos that plays with light and shadow, especially in the morose final sequences. Its only truly outstanding element, however, is Bening’s performance, and even that can’t entirely escape a maudlin tone at the close. This is an essentially mediocre tearjerker that is nonetheless notable for showcasing yet another striking turn by a superb actress.