This is the true story of scouser Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an energetic young actor in late 70s London who meets and falls deeply in love with the ageing 50s noir Hollywood screen icon Gloria Grahame (Annette Benning) in the twilight of her career. Their unusual May to December romance ends tragically when Grahame’s cancer returns and Turner takes her back to Liverpool where his working class Liverpudlian family cares for her during her final days.
This slightly uneven film is heightened by an excellent cast and two twinkly lead performances that elevate the material from complete oridinariness. Annette Benning does an incredible job of bringing Gloria Grahame to life; albeit a very different screen presence, she manages to strike the right balance between Grahame’s unique physicality and way of speaking without seemingly doing an impression; plus the added bonus of some great lines that delivered with supreme gusto. She doesn’t attempt to become Grahame but rather inhabit her. Benning plays Grahame as a witty, flirty modern woman who is to some degree always “on”, keeping her optimism and free spiritedness going despite some dire circumstances. Benning doesn't shy away from some of Grahame’s narcissistic qualities including her film star reliance on other people to function or her moments of insecurity.
Bell gives an earnest, sensitive performance as Peter. He is a man in love, who goes through a gamut of emotions as he falls for the screen siren and later becomes her carer. He does a lot with a little and certainly showcasing his own chops to be a star in his own right. A lesser actor could have easily been outshone by Benning’s excellent and much showier performance. He is the emotional anchor that the film rests on, with his performance showing a real maturity. Their on-screen chemistry comes across as very real and genuine, making for the best moments in the film.
The strongest aspect, once the issue of the age gap is set up, is that it doesnt play much of a factor except in moments of insecurity. The supporting cast is also excellent, in particular Julie Walters who plays Peter’s strong no-nonsense mother with a heart of gold and cameos by Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber as Gloria’s family in one pivotal and excellent scene. The ever brilliant and genuine scouser Stephen Graham pops up to play Peter’s antagonistic brother.
Director Paul McGuigan has a few inspired moments in amongst a superficial and simplified narrative. The film really comes alive when Peter and Gloria go to Hollywood; taking on a dreamy quality using the old school method of back projection. This kind of cinematic language could have been developed even further which would have instantly raised the films quality. Some of the non-linear structured narrative was slightly haphazard, such as a sequence we see from Peter’s point of view, then Gloria’s. In other moments there are flourishes that bring attention to themselves, undercutting the drama. Due to the way we speed past their romance, it is only the chemistry between the two leads that gives any credence to the love story and the family’s acceptance of Gloria without setting up any relationship beforehand just doesn’t ever quite sit right. These elements are saved only due to excellent casting. There are glaring grey areas which the film refuses to lean into, that again could have made for a complex film, in particular Grahame’s incredible back story.
If all the film does is reignite interest in Grahame’s amazing collection of past performances, it is totally worthwhile, as this forgotten star really was something special in her full black and white glory heyday. The new song by Elvis Costello that plays over the end credits is also worth sticking around for (or heading to Spotify for).
Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool is out now on DVD/ Blu Ray.
Words by Hamza Mohsin @lebadass