Synopsis: A romance sparks between a young actor and a Hollywood leading lady.
Stars: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Julie Walters, Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Graham, Leanne Best
Director: Paul McGuigan
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Though not for lack of trying, it’s getting harder and harder for Annette Bening to get that Oscar she’s been deserving for quite some time now. Turning in stellar performances (and, yes, the occasional clunky one) for nearly thirty years now, Bening (Girl Most Likely) picks the right projects that somehow continue to wind up being lost in the shuffle of higher profile releases. Such is the case with her lovely turn as Oscar winner (oh the irony…) Gloria Graeme in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, her latest close but no Oscar nom performance.
By the time Peter Turner (Jamie Bell, Man on a Ledge) meets Gloria Graeme in a boarding house in the late ‘70s, her days of headlining the silver screen are long behind her. Playing classic roles in regional theaters, she’s heralded for her craft but just as easily forgotten when the show closes. Inviting Turner into her room for an impromptu disco dance, the two connect in that special way that goes beyond getting down with the boogie woogie. Their first date is to (where else?) the movies to see Alien, a movie which Turner squirms through and Graeme gets a royal kick out of. They couldn’t be more different but the bond that forms between them is convincing in an oddball fashion, like a less bleak version of Harold and Maude.
Told in flashbacks by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh who adapted Turner’s memoir, the film has an interesting structure that finds scenes from the past blending with the present. Director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) never tries to hide that we’re watching a movie and that didn’t bother me as much because the cinematography from Urszula Pontikosis so heightened and gossamer. Pontikosis frames each shot like an old time postcard, even Turner’s humble family home is filmed with care. Visuals don’t get more inviting than the do when arriving in Los Angeles for a reunion with Graeme, Turner stares out from her secluded home on wheels to the ocean and a rich amber skyline that’s clearly shot in a studio.
While the movie is centrally focused on Graeme and Turner’s romance, Greenhalgh and McGuigan make sure to open the picture up to include supporting characters. Julie Walters (Paddington) is solid as a rock as Turner’s wise mother, understanding enough to see the troubles in store for the relationship but loving enough to care deeply for her son and his lover. There’s also a dandy of a scene with Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) as Graeme’s mother, another faded actress, and her sister (Frances Barber) in which they give some chilling advice to Turner.
Though he’s come a long way since his breakout role in Billy Elliot (also starring Walters), Bell moves into true leading man territory here. Complimenting Bening in all the right ways while finding moments to shine on his own, Bell is well-cast and it’s not hard to see why Graeme’s vulnerable soul would find a kindred spirit in Turner’s sensitive young man. The film belongs to Bening, though, and darn it if she isn’t dang good as a faded starlet coming to grips with accepting her own mortality. She lilts her voice and sways her hips in true Graeme fashion and eventually totally disappears into the role. McGuigan even makes the bold decision to feature film clips of the actual Graeme and while Bening doesn’t really resemble her, seeing the real person shows you how well studied Bening was in getting her mannerisms down.
While it’s a shame this one is flying so far under the radar it’s practically walking into cinemas, this will be a fun one for people to discover down the road…hopefully when Bening has won her Oscar for a performance equally as well constructed.