‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ falls flat as biopic, charms as romance

Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Paul McGuigan’s latest, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, depicts the true story of actress Gloria Grahame’s (Annette Bening) last years, from 1979 to 1981 and her romance with the much younger Peter Turner (Jamie Bell).

Grahame, a shining star of the 1950s, starred in films like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). Known as a skillful actress with a strong will and a gorgeous, memorable face, Grahame had an irresistible allure that this biopic failed to match. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” ultimately falls short in connecting the audience to Grahame, but it succeeds somewhat as a romance.

After Gloria collapses in her dressing room before a show, she makes the decision to travel to Liverpool and stay with the family of her lover Peter, who is almost three decades younger than her. We quickly find out that Gloria has breast cancer and that she is near death, despite her insistence that she can recover and beat her illness. Peter’s family lovingly takes care of Gloria so that she can spend her final days with Peter.

Gloria’s depressing battle with cancer is contrasted with a series of both lighthearted and saddening flashbacks. We see how her romance with Peter begins when she moves in next door to Peter, and after a quirky scene of Gloria and Peter boogieing together to a disco record, their relationship quickly develops after Peter kisses Gloria. The classic “girl next door” trope that marks the beginning of Peter’s and Gloria’s relationship, though a little cheesy, is special because of the large age difference between them.

At times, though, the many flashbacks are cheesy and choppy — characters will randomly walk into a door that literally leads to the past. The flashbacks also fail to answer important questions, such as how Gloria met Peter’s family and was accepted by them. The one redeeming aspect about the flashbacks is that they do give insight into Gloria’s personality, which is directly related to Bening’s presence in the film.

Bening is as striking as ever, especially when conveying Gloria’s vanity. We see real fire when anyone calls Gloria old, and we see arctic ice when Gloria’s mother and sister discuss Gloria’s dysfunctional past marriages (including one with her former stepson Anthony Ray) in front of Peter.

The flashbacks show off Bening’s versatility, as she is both the Gloria who stands strong and confident with the knowledge that her beauty is intact and also the woman who is too scared to confide in Peter that their romance is doomed by her looming diagnosis. Bening is not the only star, however, as Bell gives a solid performance alongside her, playing both the lover grieving for a woman who is still alive and a caretaker and source of strength for Gloria in her final days.

Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

No matter how strong the film’s performances are, the narrative of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is ultimately disappointing. Since the script pays so little attention to Gloria’s life and accomplishments, the film’s lack of gravitas is jarringly noticeable. The film was so centered around Peter’s and Gloria’s affair (and later in the film, just her sickness) that it felt like a standard May-December romance rather than an homage to an amazing actress’s career.

This narrative choice is a problem when it becomes clear that “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” could pretty much feature anyone’s grandmother — Gloria’s sickness or her affair with Peter take precedence over the charm and glamour that surrounded her life. Black-and-white shots of Gloria’s performances from the ‘50s certainly don’t remedy this disconnect from Gloria’s storied past. As a result, key scenes, clearly intended to be tearjerkers, evoked little emotional response.

Even still, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is a beautifully passionate and tender depiction of the relationship between the young Peter and his dying lover Gloria. Yet, the lack of attention to Gloria’s life and talent makes the film less of a hard-hitting biopic and more of a sappy, sweet romance — and an underwhelming one at that.

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is currently playing at Clay Theatre.

Contact Roshni Rawal at [email protected].