As a treat for the final day of the Cambridge Film Festival, the Arts Picturehouse screened their annual surprise film, with no advance warning at all as to director, genre, etc. This year’s surprise was, appropriately for a film festival, a film about a film star: FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL, directed by Paul McGuigan and starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, and Julie Walters. But was it a nice surprise?
Set between the ’70s and ’80s, Bening plays real-life Oscar winner Gloria Grahame in the later years of her life. She has a love affair with Bell’s character, a Liverpudlian, 20-something struggling actor named Peter Turner, from whose memoirs the film has been adapted. The two form a strong, loving relationship, but something goes wrong. Years later, Gloria turns up on Peter’s door, needing his help.
The film’s tone is delightfully similar to that of a Willy Russell play. The Liverpudlian characters have such naturalistic charm and humour to everything they say, especially the one and only Walters, playing Peter’s mother, who is troubled throughout the movie by a forthcoming plane journey. It’s a running joke that only Walters could make work as well as she does. At times, this style of dialogue does risk making the whole piece feel like a play rather than cinema, but credit to Paul McGuigan; there are some wonderful transitions throughout that remind you which medium you’re watching.
The central couple is, at least on paper, really sweet. The lovely thing about it is, when they first get together, the lack of trouble in regards to their age gap. It is brought up later on, but mostly via Gloria’s insecurities. The world around them doesn’t overly question or attack it, and Peter never doubts his attraction for a second. There’s also a very nice, progressive moment in regards to both of them revealing their sexual histories to one another, that builds their chemistry and likeability.
However, one thing that gets in the way of their chemistry is, surprisingly, Bening’s performance. She always feels slightly false, which may be a deliberate choice, as a manifestation of Gloria’s performative career and personality. But it means her love for Peter doesn’t quite feel genuine, at least not until some admittedly moving scenes late on in the narrative. Bell, on the other hand, is absolutely superb. Peter is first seen in eyeliner for a role, and Bell consistently manages to balance the femininity and masculinity in the character. He’s sensitive and relatively untethered by social norms, but in his darker moments, he’s still capable of temper and fury.
The film isn’t a masterpiece, but without Bell, it might not have worked at all. Thanks to his fantastic work, as well as strong direction, a good script and a solid supporting cast, the film is just charming enough to put a smile on your face.