Here’s a film in which excellent actors play fascinating people in interesting situations that somehow, in their adaptation from real life to memoir (by Peter Turner) to screenplay to finished movie have lost most of what’s fascinating/interesting about them. The finely realized Annette Bening performance at the center of Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool doesn’t power the movie. Bening is subject to its rhythms rather than vice versa, and her blood seems to pump faster than McGuigan’s, whose film is listless and thinly conceived. He stages this anguished romance between the troubled, aging actress Gloria Grahame and her under-30 pick-me-up hunk Turner (Jamie Bell) as if that thumbnail description is all you need to know. Every scene of their coupling, as written here by Matt Greenhalgh, seems crafted to make the simplest of points: That Grahame is deluded and insecure about her age; that Turner, an actor himself, sees an affair with her as some sort of opportunity; that actors, in real life, act out the selves they wish that they were. The script flattens these characters out to bare representations of types — they could be sketched figures in an editorial cartoon wearing sashes that say “Faded Actress” and “Young Swain.”
And yet, for all that, McGuigan’s film is peppered with moments that suggest what might have been. Both leads summon full characters out of the sketches they’ve been given to play. Bening adopts a fluttery unreliability, making each of Grahame’s small lies about how great her life is into piercing tragicomedy. Bell’s young man on the make seems torn between love and opportunism, though the screenplay avoids such complexity. When these performers get the chance to exchange dialogue, to react to each other rather than declaim the movie’s themes, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool rouses to life.
In the real world, as here, Grahame — winner of a best supporting actress Oscar for 1953’s The Bad and the Beautiful — fell out of her Hollywood success with the death of black-and-white film, this master of noir finding little success in the days of Technicolor. The raw facts of her life afterward proved darker than the shadows her movie characters inhabited: an affair with her 13-year-old stepson; electroshock treatment; facing cancer in a bedroom at her much younger boyfriend’s parents’ council flat in Liverpool. So it’s baffling that, embodied by as accomplished an actor as Bening, Film Stars’ Grahame seems so generic a character. It’s as if the screenwriter and director believe that “older” and “woman” are all there is to know about any “older woman,” and that Grahame’s every waking moment was spent worrying over — and denying — what she saw in her own mirror.
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That single-mindedness makes for a meager movie. Film Stars is no portrait of Grahame; it’s a pair of points that barely form a line. No shot in the film dares attempt to communicate more than one idea or emotion at a time. You can sense the sets in most scenes, as the actors do what they can in a world that convinces as neither the real world or a heightened film version. The strained production design fairly shouts in your face, “Did you notice this is set in 1981?” A new Elvis Costello song plays over the end credits, “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” the first the songwriter has released in four years, and its lush and haunted consideration of time, memory and doomed romance has the power and insight the film does not. The movie hits one note at a time; the song hits chords.