Only because the past twelve months can be considered a banner year for awful things, the Academy Awards snubbing Annette Bening’s towering performance in ‘20th Century Women’ isn’t exactly at the top of my list of reasons for having a general distaste for the year 2017. But make no mistake: it still stings. There, Bening gave quite possibly the performance of her career, in a film that matched her at every step, lending deep wells of feeling to a complex and caring portrait of a spikily complicated woman. However, when it comes to ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’, Bening is again giving a wonderfully luminous performance – it’s just a shame that this time, the film isn’t quite on her level.
It’s 1981, and Oscar-winning femme fatale icon Gloria Grahame (Bening) is a fading star doing modest theatre productions in Liverpool. Once the focal point of gossip, rumour and salacious scandal, Grahame’s career has slowed down and her health is failing her – and after collapsing backstage prior to a performance, she reaches out to old flame Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and asks to recuperate in his family home. From there, we move seamlessly in and out of the couple’s history, floating between their rear-projected, idyllic romance in 1979, and the quieter, sadder scenes in 1981 as they each struggle to accept Gloria’s worsening condition.
'FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL' TRAILER
Framing proceedings as more of a memory play than a straight retelling of the facts (making it all the more apt that the play Gloria collapses before is, naturally, ‘The Glass Menagerie’), director Paul McGuigan brings to the table a visual flair not often found in most biopics. McGuigan utilises the talents of cinematographer Urszula Pontikos (again lending a wonderfully casual sense of intimacy after her work in ‘Weekend’) and production designer Eve Stewart, creating free-flowing shifts between the two time periods often in the space of a single leisurely movement of the camera. This simple visualisation of the slipperiness of memory is, possibly, an obvious device, but it nevertheless creates a lovely, intimate effect.
In truth, that could be said of most of the film, which does indeed have its issues – but for all my critical might, I can’t quite bring myself to hold them against it. There’s a surprisingly honest emotional force that the film is somehow able to build and deliver, and the fact that I was a sobbing mess at the end of it is something that I can’t quite ignore.
At the centre of this conundrum is Jamie Bell, delivering what might just be one of the finest male performances of the year. Often male romantic leads in films of this sort will get short shrift, pushed to the side in order to honour the female performances in what is so regularly presumed to be a "feminine" genre. But here, there’s no denying that Bell steals the show, finally fully delivering on all of the promise he showed as a child actor in ‘Billy Elliot’ all those years ago. Charming and playful one minute, then soulful and compassionate the next, Bell elevates what could have been yet another "Nice Guy" character into a genuinely complex and involving individual. If anything, he weaponises his charisma and good looks, playing to the hilt Peter’s boyish charms and complete adoration for Gloria, while never letting the audience forget just how young he is.
There’s no denying that Jamie Bell steals the show, finally fully delivering on all of the promise he showed as a child actor in ‘Billy Elliot’ all those years ago. He's charming and playful one minute, then soulful and compassionate the next.
And then, of course, there’s Bening, glorious as always. Though admittedly she never fully disappears into the role, she does deliver a performance of quiet dignity and glamorous sensuality, through which her movie star approximation of a movie star becomes just as fascinating in its own right. The only underwhelming part of her performance is the fact that the film doesn’t really give her all that much to work with, as the screenplay creates a fairly surface-level portrait of the star that Bening can only do so much with. Indeed, by the end of the film, even as Grahame’s worsening condition is handled delicately and devastatingly, there’s a nagging lack of specificity to the character that can’t really be ignored – you get the feeling that this could really be any ageing former star, rather than only this particular one.
But, in the end, the positives outweigh the negatives. Sure, I could use this review to explore how annoying it is to have a biopic about one of the most under-the-radar fascinating females of Hollywood, only for it to mainly focus on a male, but the sincerity and depth of feeling with which it explores that male - and their relationship - is hard to brush over. If anything, it’s almost just as annoying because it’s done so damn well. It’s just a shame that it comes at the expense of the film ever actually inhabiting the perspective or exploring the history of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing stars.