TELLURIDE – In case you haven’t heard, people have been waiting for an Annette Bening performance for the ages. It’s a thing. The sort of role that would encapsulate a mighty fine career that when compared to her peers hasn’t always gotten the notoriety it deserves despite four Academy Award nominations. Improbably, while Bening is incredible playing a fading Hollywood starlet in Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool,” it’s her co-star, Jamie Bell, who might be the film’s real secret weapon.
The true story of Paul Turner’s relationship with the Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame (and based on his book of the same title), there is still something inherently familiar about it all that’s frustratingly hard to pinpoint. Turner (Bell) was a struggling 28-year-old actor in 1978 London when Grahame, who was in the UK to star in a stage play, moved in next door. Despite an almost 30-year age gap they had a passionate two-year long affair that found Turner introducing Grahame to his family back in Liverpool and visiting her in both Los Angeles and New York for extended periods. After a dramatic and unexpected breakup that left Turner heartbroken, he didn’t hear from Grahame until 1981 when she asked if she could stay at his home after falling ill performing in London.
McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh clearly realize this could be too conventional as a straight narrative and tell most of the story in flashbacks from Turner’s perspective beginning with her request to recuperate from an illness with his family. We’re discovering Grahame through his eyes and that allows some of the less positive moments of her life to be glossed over (for instance, the fact her one-time stepson became her fourth husband is sort of discussed, but not that the scandal almost destroyed her career, or that she had electroshock therapy, etc). What McGuigan and Greenhalgh have done instead is fashion a love story, and are lucky enough to have Bell on hand who magnificently convinces us of Turner’s deep and unexpected love for a movie star he’d barely heard of before meeting her. In many ways, with very little dramatic conflict, Turner’s love for Grahame is what pushes the story forward. Bell has to carry most of the film on his shoulders, doing so with a heartfelt honesty that wonderfully contrasts with Bening’s portrayal of Grahame as a woman who is often still acting in front of the camera no matter what the context.
It’s slightly jarring and unexpected at first, but impossible to deny that Bening recreates Grahame’s voice affectations and seemingly bubbly nature to impressive effect. Despite the film’s logline, this is not the sort of character Bening has played over the years whatsoever. Her best moments though come when McGuigan stages the end of the relationship over a contentious few days in her Manhattan apartment. The filmmaker plays the scenes out from two different perspectives, first from Turner’s eyes, and later from Grahame’s. It’s perhaps the most inspired sequence in the film and finds Bening masterfully — emphasis on masterfully – playing a distraught woman mustering all her strength to put on an awards worthy performance. Unbeknownst to Turner, she’s received grave news from her doctor and decides she can’t let Turner be burdened with her care. In the context of a single shot Bening conveys Grahame’s emotional heartbreak while also flipping a switch to become a seemingly disinterested party as she tries to push Turner away. McGuigan captures her doing this again and again and it’s during this sequence that “Liverpool” finally becomes more than a standard May-December romance.
A good chunk of the film also takes place at Turner’s home where his relatively older mother (Julie Walters, fantastic as always) cares for the ailing Grahame while trying to convince her son its best for his former lover to return to the United States with her family. This is perhaps the most unnecessarily drawn out and weakest aspect of the screenplay, but Walters’ presence makes it entertaining to say the least.
When Grahame finally has to depart to New York, it’s Turner’s emotional breakdown that found numerous moviegoers in my screening bawling and Bell deserves a lion’s share of the credit for it. In the end, it’s a tragic romance where you see the ending coming a good ten minutes into the movie, but how can you not fall for a film that finds the joy in Bening and Bell disco dancing together? [B]