Director: Paul McGuigan
Runtime: 105 minutes
Going in to watch Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (FSDDL), I was not in a great mood. I was tired after watching Hellboy on Netflix and the cinema charged me for an adult ticket rather than a student one. But as the advertisements and film trailers slowly came to a close, and I was welcomed into the warm, buzzing interior of an actor’s dressing room, my frustration quickly dissipated. This British-American romantic comedy was uplifting and heart-wrenching, and I truly enjoyed just about every minute of it.
FSDDL is based on Peter Turner’s memoir of the same name. As such, it chronicles the real-life relationship between Turner (portrayed by Jamie Bell) and Gloria Grahame (Annette Benning), an American leading lady whose illustrious career has all but diminished. I only read one synopsis before seeing the film and it emphasised Grahame’s considerable seniority over Turner, as well as her breast cancer diagnosis. But the film does not wield this age gap as a means to entice curious onlookers (though I must admit, I was intrigued by the notion of a romantic encounter between a post-puberty Billy Elliot and the high-strung wife from American Beauty). The film is a celebration of their companionship and the lengths they will traverse to ensure the happiness of the other.
Benning’s portrayal of Grahame is at times frustrating, yet I felt compelled to offer her my friendship and empathy. We stumble upon Grahame at the same time as Turner while she is performing an unorthodox warm-up routine. When she invites him in for a drink and a dance, his compliance is unquestionable. Benning floats through the room gracefully, the sunlight illuminating her blonde hair like a halo, and her limbs seemingly extending forever. She speaks in a whispery, high-pitched tone, and though it felt distracting at first, it came to perfectly encapsulate the desperation of this woman to hold onto life and all its treasures.
The cyclical structure of the film works wonders, establishing then reshaping the power dynamics between Turner and Grahame. We belatedly learn of her four children, each fathered by four different men, as well as her fourth husband being the son of her second husband. Likewise, Grahame’s sudden decision to break up with Turner is given very little context, and we are moved to blame her self-serving need for new waves of attention and affection.
However, McGuigan turns the car around and we are given panoramic insight into Grahame’s sudden aloofness; cancer she survived before meeting Turner has returned with a vengeance. She is not merely a declining movie star hanging around youths in the hopes of catching their exuberance and potential. She is a woman so deeply in love with a man that she would rather push him away than expose him to the merciless wrath of cancer.
The chemistry between Bell and Benning is infallible, with Bell’s longing gazes drawing us more deeply into their special little world. This infallibility extends to Bell’s Liverpool ‘scouse’ accent, and the matriarch of the Turner family, Bella (Julie Walters), perfectly demonstrates Liverpool’s renowned hospitality.
In a world where ‘unconventional’ relationships, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender, are being spewed out more furiously as a draw-card for audiences, this film is a standout. The relationship between Turner and Grahame is not some sideshow act. It is a testament to the deeply complex, powerful nature of love. I would happily pay for an adult ticket to see this film again.