AFI Fest Review: ‘FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL’ restores a star’s shine

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL

Rated R, 106 minutes
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
Starring: Jamie BellAnnette BeningStephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave, Kenneth Cranham, Julie Walters

2017 seems to be the year of biopics about less-than-well-known actors. Not only do we have DALIDA (who, granted, was probably better known as a singer) and THE DISASTER ARTIST, we’re also getting director Paul McGuigan’s FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. It’s both a touching, tender love story and a respectful, fully cinematic biography of an underappreciated talent, whose scandalous tastes eclipsed her star power. The gauzy romance makes way for a glossy biopic.

It’s 1981 in Liverpool, England where we first meet our breathy beauty, actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening). She’s about to take the stage in “The Glass Menagerie” when she’s struck down by a horrific bout of pain. Eschewing pride, she rings up her estranged ex-flame Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), who lives with his family nearby, and asks to convalesce at the home of his spitfire mom (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham). As Jamie reflects on the memories of their vibrant love affair, he grapples with questions surrounding her chances of survival, and (despite her wishes) whether he should call her family.

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

McGuigan’s use of flashbacks is resplendent. I wish other films would take as much care in how they transition from present day to the past as perfectly as he does. Gliding and panning around, his camera emphasizes the fluidity of these memories as they fade in and out. He celebrates yellow-blue color theory, whether it’s the walls of the Turner household combined with Peter’s sweater, the sky and sand of his California Dreamin’ visit with Gloria, or the browns and teals in their New York City apartment. Urszula Pontikos’s cinematography transitions effortlessly between the present and the past. Eve Stewart’s production design layers in flower motifs on Gloria’s hotel wall and on her blanket in the Turner home, perhaps a metaphor for the blooming flower she once was.

Narratively, it gets a little problematic. Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who adapts Turner’s biography, fumbles a little in the translation. For as much as it provides a defiant but subtle statement on women who dare to age in the Hollywood machine, it also doesn’t clarify a few of its points. It’s convenient that only one person – a dinner guest of Gloria’s mother Jeanne McDougall (Vanessa Redgrave) – voices her problems with their age difference. Why are Peter’s parents so invested in his relationship with Gloria when it’s never shown they met her, or loved her when she was healthy? Peter’s inner conflict is a no-brainer. We’re ahead of his actions, and it takes too long to get to his realization and her redemption.

The highlights are the performances from both Bening (who should be nominated to make up for her 20th CENTURY WOMEN snub) and Walters (who should at least be in the best supporting actress category). The film makes a strong commentary about the plight of actresses, and though it’s told through a male protagonist, it allows these ladies to radiate.

Grade: C+

FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL plays AFI Fest on November 12. It opens in limited release on December 29.

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