Early to the Theater – Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool Review

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. 

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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.

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I may be biased, because their first date is to see ALIEN. 

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.

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