It might sound like a piece of fan fiction, but Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is based on a true-life celebrity encounter that evolved without any discussion of stalking scandals or restraining orders.
Even those who recall the career of Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame (The Bad and the Beautiful) probably don’t know about her role depicted in this drama about lost souls finding one another.
It begins in 1979, when an aging Gloria (Annette Bening) is isolated in a modest apartment in the titular city and still dreams of reviving her long-dormant big-screen career by taking some roles on the British stage.
Her young neighbor, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), shares her thespian aspirations from a newcomer’s perspective. That leads to them spending more time together, and eventually developing a deeper affection for one another, despite an age difference of several decades. He winds up becoming a caretaker of sorts while tolerating Gloria’s mercurial behavior, along with her neuroses and ailments.
Gradually, secrets are revealed that threaten to tear them apart, although the extent to which Gloria’s condition is mental, as opposed to physical, remains mostly unclear.
As directed by Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein), offers an evocative period re-creation of its working-class Liverpool neighborhood. The character-driven screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere Boy) — based on Turner’s memoir — is deliberately paced while employing a jumbled narrative chronology, although it shows a genuine affection for movie stars of a bygone era.
In a plum role as the washed-up diva, Bening brings depth and complexity alongside the inevitable scenery chewing. She’s boozy, impetuous, insecure, neurotic, and mentally unstable — yet still manages to generate moderate sympathy. Also credit her chemistry with Bell (Billy Elliot) that emphasizes the tenderness of their May-December relationship.
We’ve seen these struggling artist types before, on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and it’s generally easier for them to connect with one another than with the audience.
But even if it lacks deeper context and emotional resonance, the film winds up as a poignant and sensitively rendered love story with some powerfully intimate moments along the way. And if it prompts moviegoers to seek out the actual work of its subject and others of her classic era, then all the better. Perhaps in a figurative sense, the wordy title is true after all.