While life writes the best of stories that speak to all of us on another level, sometimes it’s tough for a film to recreate it without idealising it overly or overdosing on melodrama. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool takes a fascinating real story and translates it to the screen on its own terms. Although it doesn’t shy away from overly dramatic moments, it has a seed of a poignant love story at its heart, and it wins the audience over with the terrific performances.
Getting ready to go on stage, Gloria Grahame is taking from Hollywood to steal the show on the stage in London in her newest play. One evening, her preparations are suddenly interrupted when she starts feeling unwell. The symptoms that have been plaguing her for a while aren’t anything serious, but she can definitely get better in Liverpool – or at least that’s what she tells Peter, her former lover who’s now a theatre actor in his hometown. He invites her to his parents’ house and lets her stay for a while. Her presence brings back the sweet memories of the flame that’s once lit up their world and faded in difficult circumstances. But there’s a fire that smoulders the Film star gradually, and as we see it flicker, we revive their warmest memories as we come to terms with the reality that contrasts it brutally.
Heartfelt tiny details of Gloria and Peter’s romance provide for the atmospheric background of the main heroine’s characterisation and allow us to immerse ourselves in this love story. They don’t seem to have much in common besides the love of acting: she’s a high-profile star dividing her time between Los Angeles, New York and London, he’s a working-class boy that dreams of making it as an actor. However, their chemistry transcends their differences and makes them dive into a passionate romance that unfolds with every little memory we see on the big screen. Dancing around her room or gazing at the sea in California, they’re like teenagers in love, and the world stops to give them some time on their own every time they enjoy the moment. Their moments of intimacy are the strongest point of the film, and we miss them far too much when the film decides to shake it off.
Annette Bening has the charisma and charm of an Old Hollywood movie star, so it’s not a surprise she slips into the skin of Gloria Grahame straight away, and it fits her like a glove. She’s magnetic when she flirts with Peter, and breaks our hearts when she lies in a dark room, listening to a family argument that concerns her without a word. With exquisite energy, she paints a picture of an unconventional personality, a woman who loved life and lived it to the fullest, defying the society’s expectations and creating her own story. Gloria’s choices come alive with her every single word, sheltering a particularly excruciating sacrifice that she reveals to us towards the end. Bening is at the heart of the plot, pulling the strings, wooing us at every single opportunity; putting lipstick on or pursing her lips while thinking of something deeply, she’s in control of every single detail.
She’s partnered by Jamie Bell, who steps up to the challenge: be it as a young man falling in love with a fascinating woman that sweeps him off his feet, or a grown-up that feels responsible for someone who he loves dearly even if their relationship has come to a tearful end. He presents Peter as thoughtful and much quieter than his partner, the yang to her yin. However, when they end up fighting, two great, tough personalities come to the fore, which provides a bit of a balance for his slightly idealised, slick persona.
However, there’s something distracting and overly glamourous in this film, particularly when we leave England for America, and the likely culprit are the settings. They appear a little over-the-top in some sequences, and the brightly lit interiors add to this feeling quite often. Although it goes hand in hand with the Hollywood glamour and pledges to recall it, it takes a tiny bit away from the intimacy of a few scenes. Attempting to recreate the feeling of the films that Gloria starred in, it’s quite an unexpected sight that jabs you with a bit of coldness by accident. The moments when Gloria and Peter are on their own in a dim restaurant or sit at the beach gazing at the sunset allow the situations do the talking, on the other hand, and add a bit more of grounding feeling to it.
With show-stopping performances that retell the story of the legend of the Golden Era of Hollywood, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a smoothened, but truly moving biopic that feeds off the chemistry between the leads. Although there are a couple of moments that prick us with the slight change of mood, they do make us miss the intimacy of toned down scenes; nevertheless, the pleasure of seeing Bening and Bell fitting together so well on the silver screen stays with us even when the bolder, brasher moments take over.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was screened as a part of the 61st London Film Festival. It was released in the UK on the 17th of November 2017.
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