Recently Jen and Achariya have been fortunate enough to review films prior to wide release. We’re very excited about today’s entry, a screener that Jen received from Sony Pictures Classics. As always, the basic, spoiler-free review will appear above the cut, and more in-depth analysis below. And as always, Jen was not paid or compensated for this review in any way.
Based on a memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a powerful, layered romance that is honestly quite difficult to sum up at a glance. Fading American film star Gloria Graham, weakened by illness, is looked after in her last few months by her former lover, a man thirty years younger, and his working-class Liverpool family in 1981. Through a series of flashbacks the audience discovers what brought the unlikely pair together and what ultimately tore them apart. I haven’t read the book so I’ve no idea how much it differs, if at all, from the film.
Annette Benning plays Graham in a knock-out performance. She has already been nominated for several critics’ awards and it wouldn’t surprise me to see her nominated for an Oscar, although the fact she’s not nominated for a Golden Globe seemed a crime. With masterful subtlety, Benning reveals Graham in layers as the story unfolds; she presents a breathy voiced and starry eyed ingenue to her public and the outside world, which is of course why Peter Turner, played by Jamie Bell, falls in love with her; when stressed she becomes shrill and manic at times, such as when Turner mentions her age or crosses any of the invisible lines she’s drawn for him; and lastly, reserved and fragile when she finally accepts that her prognosis is terminal and weighing heavily on her loved ones.
Although the May-December relationship premise of an older female film star and a young male lover is familiar, it would be disingenuous to compare this film to say, Sunset Boulevard. Obviously the relationship here was based on true events, and the story elements are so novel that they feel fresh. Before I realized it was a biography, I found myself wondering precisely that, since truth is stranger than fiction and the characters and settings felt so weirdly solid. Kenneth Cranham plays Peter’s father, delightful in sweater vests and owlish glasses. Julie Walters (best known as the Weasley matriarch from the Harry Potter movies) puts in an amazing performance as Peter’s mother Bella, who helps him look after Gloria when the latter becomes bedridden. Vanessa Redgrave shines in a small but riveting role as Gloria’s mother.
As as aside before we get to the spoilers – I’m hoping the great Hollywood purge of sexist shitbags occurring right now will make room for more filmmakers and films like this one. In an early scene where Graham is warming up for her performance by blowing air through her lips, the camera lingers in close-up on her mouth every wrinkle and line is on display. It was a bold creative choice, the sort that wouldn’t have a place in a film-making atmosphere dominated by toxic masculinity. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was directed by Paul McGuigan (who among other TV hits directed 2 episodes of Luke Cage!) and was produced by the legendary Barbara Broccoli.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had a limited US release last year and seems to mostly be playing the film festivals. I hope it does well and receives a wide release.
First and foremost, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is about denial; denial is so central to the plot that it’s right there in the title. It speaks to the idea that stars are somehow other than human, better than and therefore immune to quotidian indignities the rest of us must suffer. Of course film stars die in Liverpool – they die wherever they are when their clock runs out, just like anyone else. Because at the end of the day, they are just like anyone else.
Gloria won an Oscar, lived in an LA mansion next to Bogie and Bacall, traveled the world, keeps homes in California and Manhattan, and even in the twilight of her years still enjoys the respect of her peers and adoration of her fans. However, she is still aging, a fact she refuses to accept. The depth of this refusal emerges now and then, such as when she confides to Peter she hopes to some day play Shakespeare’s Juliet. Understandably Peter has trouble taking her seriously since she’s literally old enough to be his mother (she has a son his age in the US) and Juliet is a girl, and laughs. This is one of the early signs that Gloria’s carefully built house of cards isn’t as stable as it appears.
Another bold creative choice was to introduce Gloria to the audience at her current age, offering only fleeting glances of her former glory. This way, we see her as Peter sees her. Peter doesn’t know who she was, he only knows her as she is and his attraction to her is never in question. It’s also an intelligent choice because Benning doesn’t really look much like Graham, a fact which works to the film’s advantage as it allows the audience some disconnect between Gloria then vs. Gloria now. In an interesting reversal to most crumbling relationship tropes, when Gloria begins disappearing for hours at a time it is Peter who frets away the hours, wondering if she is seeing someone else.
The reality is that Gloria has been to see her doctor, and the breast cancer she thought she had beaten was not in remission after all. Afraid of the work she would lose if she lost her hair, she never completed chemo. The doctor warns her that while she’s been enjoying relatively good health, she is in for a sudden crash.
The crash is the inciting incident for the rest of the film: while backstage preparing for a performance, she suffers crippling pain and collapses. The theater calls Peter, who is conflicted but takes her to his home at her request.
And despite the massive inconvenience this creates, Peter’s family takes her in. Gloria is at once charming and vulnerable; it would be easy to suspect her of being manipulative, but she really seems too self-centered for that, if that makes sense. At one point, Peter reveals to her that he is bisexual, having experimented with men in the past. For a working-class English lad to admit such a thing in 1981 is pretty titanic, but Gloria breezily waves him off claiming she has been bisexual too. His coming out to her is less important than the grunions running in the surf below them. She is a star that gives off light and beauty, but very little life-preserving heat.
One last thing before closing – Jamie Bell is really terrific in this role. He brings such a quiet strength to it while still transmitting care and concern for Gloria. One of the real tragedies of cancer is the toll it takes on those connected to the patient. Although Peter is unflagging in his care for Gloria (with one lapse), his family are less prepared to watch her die in their house and feel it is the responsibility of Gloria’s estranged family to care for her. Peter is understandably crushed by this, in addition to Gloria’s request she return to New York despite being entirely bedridden. He understands she is choosing to remove herself from his family and him in order to die.
So that has been Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. I hope you enjoyed this review and will check out the film when it becomes available in your area!