How delightful it is to witness the screen reunion of Julie Walters and Jamie Bell twenty-seven years on from Billy Elliot. He’s no longer a scrawny adolescent ballet lad (though the boyish looks are still there), she’s ditched the stockings, and they’ve both decamped to Merseyside for Paul McGuigan’s funny, affectionate and heartbreaking tale of the fascinating, true story, relationship of a former fifties film star – a dazzling Annette Bening – and the boy next door. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, but they do sparkle.
Often forgotten in the pantheon of classic Hollywood’s boulevard of fame, Gloria Grahame was a star that burned bright and burned out. A casualty of fame (not to mention the perception that she ‘always played the tart’), Grahame was a belle of scandal, with a personal life that consumed and indeed suffocated her career. Hers was an oeuvre which had included turns with the greats: Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford and James Stewart; she worked with Fritz Lang and was the one-time record holder for shortest screen-time to win an Oscar. She was also mother to four (‘I keep them safe with my four ex-husbands’) and, allegedly, a renowned flirt. ‘I like habits,’ she purrs here, ‘especially bad ones.’
Based on the memoir by Peter Turner (played here by Bell), Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool leaves the melodrama of Grahame’s younger years to the nuanced strain of memory, following instead the final years in the life of the girl who couldn’t say no with Turner, then a struggling actor living in north London. In a sequence reminiscent of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the pair first meet in 1979, with Gloria attracting Peter into her flat across the hall for a dance on the promise of a drink: ‘If you fix me a drink I’ll come in and clean your bathroom’. From hereon, it is the instant chemistry of Bening and a career-best Bell that really allows the film to bloom. Bening, herself an overlooked star of the present, seems to effortlessly channel Grahame, from the Betty Boop chatter to the high pitched girly giggle. The character is one boundlessly engaging to watch – perhaps naturally so, coming from the perspective of lover – and more than passingly reminds of tragic heroines Blanche DuBois or Norma Desmond; Marlyn Monroe, even. Her decline from health is so traumatically raw in Benning’s performance that one could quite imagine Bell requiring no method acting to summon tears. As Peter, he too is exceptional.
Walters is Peter’s mother, Bella, with Kenneth Cranham as father Joe, and Stephen Graham and an oddly mute Isabella Laughland as his brother and sister. Relationships being the film’s strong point, McGuigan captures a lovingly believable family unit who feel far more than mere comic subordinates, there for the ride. Mind, if the real Bella was anything like she is in the film, it’s astonishing just how akin she was to Walters’ back catalogue of warm, witty but emotionally worn mothers. Naturally, she’s too good to warrant critique, with Manila never before so hilariously deployed in film. Cameos by Vanessa Redgrave, a delightfully bitchy Frances Barber (she does it so well) and Leanne Best only further the strength of this core acting ensemble.
Behind the camera – backstage, as Gloria would say – it’s pleasing to find McGuigan resurrecting the eye for restrained style he’s proved himself capable in the past after convoluted over-efforts in Victor Frankenstein and Push before it. Lens flares are tempered with an assured classicism that shines particularly in a escape to LA, completed with one beautifully rear-projected drive and a dazzling Singing in the Rain styled skyline. Having penned Control and Nowhere Boy prior to this, script writer Matt Greenhalgh is no stranger to biopic territory and, though flashback segues occasionally feel a touch forced, he’s note perfect here in the ebbs and flows of humour and sadness. It’s certainly refreshing to find a format film unrestrained by the episodic shackles of history. In this company, the time flies.