It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves her
Annette Bening shines as a dying star
At her peak in the 1950s when she won an Oscar for her role in The Bad and The Beautiful – Vincente Minnelli’s searing indictment of Hollywood – Gloria Grahame was a sultry star who gave the men on screen as good as she got. By the time we meet her in Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Grahame as played by Annette Bening is a long way from the glamorous heights of her past – auditioning for plays in England and living in a trailer in California.Based on the memoir by British actor Peter Turner, the film tells the bittersweet story of Turner’s romance with the actress in 1970s Liverpool when he was 26 and Grahame was 54. Played by Jamie Bell, Turner is a sweet, well-meaning man from a solidly working class family trying to make his career on stage when he’s swept up by the dizzying Grahame for a few briefly wondrous months before their relationship ends.When Grahame is diagnosed with cancer she reappears in Turner’s life, arriving on his family’s doorstep, preferring to be with them than her own family back in the US. She is looked after by Peter and his salt-of-the-earth parents (played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) who do their best while Peter recalls some of the highlights of their relationship as a means of staving off his having to deal with the inevitable.McGuigan’s previous films such as Lucky Number Slevin are far more action-packed and “blokey” than this material. While he may be a surprising choice for this film he manages to mostly keep things ticking along, although he’s guilty of laying on the sentimental touches too thickly. Bening’s performance keeps the attention as she conveys the fight inside Grahame between the ravages of age and a youthful free-spiritedness that is so rapidly disappearing. She’s ably supported by Bell who makes the most of his chance to play a romantic lead with a sensitivity and quiet pain that make Grahame’s decline as hard to watch for us as it is for him.While there’s one brief allusion to Grahame’s past in a scene in which the couple go to the movies, there’s not much else of her Hollywood heyday and the film suffers a little as a result. It doesn’t presume to be a Sunset Boulevard-type exploration of the disposability of the starlets of the golden age but it would have been nice to see something of Grahame’s previous life explored in more detail. To reduce her simply to an object of sympathy is to reduce her very real impact on cinema history during the peak of her career.As a tearjerking chamber piece about love found late and the support of good-hearted, no-fuss people, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool works more than adequately. As a portrait of the actress Gloria Grahame, however, it’s unfortunately wafer-thin.