From the world of inherently cinematic true-life stories comes ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’. The film, directed by Paul McGuigan, tells the story of the last years of Hollywood Golden Age actress Gloria Grahame. Long given up on Hollywood, Grahame (Annette Bening) is performing in a play in London when she meets Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a fellow actor she begins a relationship with. The film jumps between their relationship from courting until conclusion and her final weeks, when she is staying in Peter’s family home. She’s dying, despite the efforts of Peter’s mum (Julie Walters, in a mini-Billy Elliot reunion with Bell), dad (Kenneth Cranham) and older brother (Stephen Graham). ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’, but this one might.
That inherently cinematic story, however, is completely ruined by McGuigan and cinematographer Ula Pontikos’ attempt to turn it into cinema. Firstly, the film has more unnecessary lens flare than a JJ Abrams wet dream. Secondly, there’s the dodgy green screen, enough to make anyone with even a passing knowledge of special effects feel blue.
Perhaps these effects are meant to mirror the story. As a tale of a Hollywood starlet, and the stark reality between Graham’s old life of Bogie or Bette and her current life in Liverpool. As such, the cinematography could be an attempt to deliberately draw our attention to the artificial nature of the Hollywood myth, what critic Mark Cousins calls ‘The Bauble’.
In practice, however, it is just a massive distraction from a film where every actor is doing great realistic work, and the design team have brought 1979 to life in immaculate period detail. It’s a shame there isn’t an Oscar for Best Original Wallpaper, because this film would be a shoo-in.
Unlike wallpaper, these details are not enough to paper over the cracks in this film. The performances are across-the-board great, but are robbed of their emotions by pountles playing with chronology, as in an extended sequence where we revisit the events of Bening and Bell’s break-up twice. Though this gives us the treat of more excellent emotional work from Bening, even the slowest members of the audience got it the first time. Film stars may not die in Liverpool, but the makers of this film seem to think your brain cells might.
Bening’s Grahame should be an Oscar nomination-worthy performance, with the actress playing the second of a fantastic double bill of characters in 1979 following ‘20th Century Women’ earlier in 2017. Her performance makes a fascinating comparison with Michelle Williams’ Monroe in ‘My Week with Marilyn’. Both are eerily similar, and Monroe is even alluded to Grahame’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) here. And just like the earlier film, this star turn at the centre of ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is not enough to make this film shine.