‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is a literal sleeper

Gloria Grahame (played willingly by Annette Bening) lived a long and fruitful life as an Oscar winning movie star, so why did director Paul McGuigan chose an affair late in her life as the basis for a movie?

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool was adapted from Peter Turner’s (played here by Jamie Bell) memoir by Matt Greenhalgh, which documented his romance with Grahame after the bombshell’s better years were behind her. While it probably made for a good read, the cinematic treatment comes off like a Lifetime movie with a too good for the material cast.

Bening owns an Oscar herself, and sinks her teeth into the role of a woman desperately trying to stay trapped in that young actress’ body as she approaches old age and encounters health issues. She can play the role, but there isn’t much in the script that is demanding or revealing about this woman that couldn’t be found on a Wikipedia page. This is the kind of role/performance that was dreamed up as Oscar bait, but ended up being an ordinary portrayal with no real sizzle.

Bell is a decent performer, but his okay but not great work here doesn’t elevate the material like it needs to, and thus you are stuck watching the tired old tale of a younger actor falling in love with an older woman who will end up teaching this kid a thing or two about love and maybe, show business.

McGuigan’s directorial resume looks like a man who wants to try a bite of everything at the buffet. It’s a real cinema mosh pit. He directed Victor Frankenstein in 2015 as well as Wicker Park and Lucky Number Slevin with Josh Hartnett. Lately, he’s done a ton of television work, none of which made him the type to helm a film about Grahame’s life.

What about the early years? How about her launch into Hollywood fame? The first love of her life? There’s a small moment where Turner compares her to Lauren Bacall and she balks at it. That was interesting and a peek behind the curtain. I wanted more of those unknown bits instead of a yarn-inducing romantic drama about finding each other too late in life.

Turner’s family makes for the most engrossing part of the film. Julie Andrews and Kenneth Cranham add some wit and laughs as Turner’s parents, while Boardwalk Empire stud Stephen Graham has a few good moments as his brother. The scenes where Peter brings Grahame home elicit laughs that I think, but am not sure, were intentional. It ends up feeling awkward.

The film isn’t terrible and has its moments, one of them being a late scene with Turner reading ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to Gloria on a small dimly lit theater stage. Scenes stand head and shoulders above others, where Bell and Bening try to ignite a fire on screen that simply never shows up. The two actors have little chemistry, and that dooms the film.

Film stars may not die in Liverpool, but some love stories should stay buried there. This isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t do anything particular well, and after a couple days, will vanish from your memory.

Example: I screened this film in December. I had to watch the trailer this week to refresh my memory on it. I immediately got tired after those two minutes.

Skip this film and read a book on Graham or track down one of her movies for a more fulfilling experience.

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