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Movie review: 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' revisits actress Gloria Grahame at the end of her life

By: Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
February 23, 2018 Updated: February 23, 2018 at 4:40 am
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Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool." MUST CREDIT: Susie Allnutt, Sony Pictures Classics

Starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Annette Bening; directed by Paul McGuigan; 106 minutes; R for strong language, some sexual material and brief nudity.

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" is based on a book of the same name, a memoir by Peter Turner about his love affair with actress Gloria Grahame when he was an aspiring actor in his 20s and she was in her mid-50s.

But as the title suggests, Turner's recollections aren't about his unlikely but utterly affecting May-December romance; rather, he recounts how, at the end of her life, Grahame sought to reconnect with her then ex-lover, seeking refuge in his working-class home in Liverpool to be tended by his loving, unruly, often tartly amusing family.

As the movie opens, we see the middle-aged Gloria, portrayed in a virtuosic performance by Annette Bening, in front of a dressing room mirror, putting on her face. From these first few moments, it's clear that Matt Greenhalgh's script won't traffic in the artifice of Hollywood glamour but rather the vulnerabilities at its tender, less photogenic core.

Soon Gloria is fetching up at Peter's house, where he is trying to persuade his parents to visit one of his siblings in the Philippines. Rather than welcome the frail diva with abashed deference, the Turners take her in as they would any stray friend or relative - with a soft bed, hot tea and no intrusive questions.

Peter - played in a sensitive, appealing turn by Jamie Bell - soon revisits how he and Gloria met, and it's in these transitions that director Paul McGuigan shines, shifting time frames with graceful ingenuity and musical echoes of then-vs.-now.

Rather than a pathetic attempt by Gloria to reclaim her youth, or starstruck ambition by Peter, their relationship is clearly revealed as a meeting of the minds, whether they're dancing to pop songs or rehearsing lines from the play she's doing on the outskirts of London.

As a straightforward retelling of Turner's own unfussy tale, "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" possesses the benefits of forthrightness, but that also lends it an air of banality. What is surely one of the unique love stories of its generation is robbed of its strange, even bizarre beauty. It's a perfectly lovely little film, which is fine. But film fans can be forgiven for wanting more.

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