I’ve made my fair share of jokes about Liverpool but it’s still a very nice city. Yeah you can make cheap jokes about Scousers all day but the Albert Docks area is stunning and of course they have plenty of culture having been the centre of the 60s music scene thanks to a certain four-piece rock band. But one thing it lacks is an iconic film. Sheffield has The Full Monty, Edinburgh has Trainspotting but Liverpool doesn’t have a movie that immediately makes you think of them. With the name of the city being in the title, can Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool be that movie?
Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening, American Beauty) is a famous 1950s Hollywood actress, though now it is the late 1970s she has largely been forgotten. She moves into a room in Liverpool and quickly starts a romance with the son of the landlady, Peter (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliott). However the age gap soon becomes a sticking point between the two.
This is one of the movies that are very quickly fall in love with. There’s just a sweetness to it that you can’t help but become enamoured with. That all starts with the chemistry between Annette Bening and Jamie Bell. Both are great actors but they have a lot to battle against in this movie as usually big age gaps between romantic partners is likely to make us comfortable. What can you expect when we’ve been conditioned to think one is always exploiting the other? But from the first scene they are together, you are willing for them to get together. Their flirting is so casual and nice that you can see there’s something between them right from the start and the way it develops is so natural that it doesn’t feel like something contrived for a movie but a real relationship.
And this is down to two great leading performances from both Annette Bening and Jamie Bell. Bening is an actual legend so really it shouldn’t be too hard to play a film star, though the past it part might be a bit much because Bening is still consistently in great films. But she plays Gloria with a fragile confidence, someone who on the surface seems like she has it all together but it only takes a few wrong words to crack that exterior and bring all of those insecurities to the surface. She is wonderful from start to finish and her scenes towards the end when she is in desperate denial is some of the best work I have seen over the last few years.
And please let this be a star making performance for Jamie Bell. He has gone through a lot, namely that Fantastic Four reboot and he more than holds his own alongside Bening. He is overshadowed in some scenes but there are others where he completely excels, especially when he tries to defend Gloria’s denial to his family. He has this dear love for Gloria which is painted on his face throughout the entire movie even when he is trying to disguise it. Then there is this anger he holds, obviously because of the way things worked out but ends up being unleashed on the wrong people. It’s a special performance and I hope it is one that Bell can parlay into more roles in the future.
The true majesty of this film though is how it creates tragedy out of a fairly standard structure. Warning, I’m breaching into spoiler territory here so skip to the next paragraph if you want to go in completely in the dark. While it does it brilliantly, the movie follows a fairly standard romance movie structure. Two people get together, have a whirlwind romance and then break up for a minor reason. Having watched a lot of romance films in the past, you expect a grand moment which brings them back together. And the film is nudging that way until it brutally whips the rug away from beneath you. It’s a horrible realisation for not just you but everyone in the film and it’s what makes this film truly brilliant. I always love a film that uses cliches to their advantage so I doff my cap to this one.
It is a truly marvelous film but there is a few bugbears that I have to address. The movie is set up as a flashback, with Peter remembering his romance with Gloria after she sees her again. Because the movie shows very clearly what happens to Peter and Gloria in the future, that does lessen some of the impact the flashback scenes have because you know what is going to happen. There’s a noticable quality gap as the stuff in the present, well 1981, is definitely better than the scenes in the past though both are brilliant. It is a minor complaint but I’m a critic, that’s what we do best.
There’s a great chance that Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool becomes the iconic film the city needs. While perhaps the city itself isn’t as big a character as some other of the other films which are a symbol of their area, it definitely has the quality needed to be something beloved by the citizens of Liverpool for years to come. This is an amazing love story between two people that were right for each other despite the age difference and that one was a silver screen star while the other was a struggling actor in Liverpool. A definite classic.
Dir: Paul McGuigan
Scr: Matt Greenhalgh, Peter Turner
Cast: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters
Prd: Barbara Broccoli, Andrew Noble, Amanda Schiff, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Colin Vaines
DOP: Urszula Pontikos
Music: J. Ralph
Runtime: 105 minutes
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is released on Digital on 11th March and Blu-Ray and DVD on 19th March.