She was once one of the most famous movie stars in the business, with an Oscar to her name and roles in everything from It's a Wonderful Life to Oklahoma! toThe Big Heat. But in 1981, Gloria Grahame (played here by Annette Bening) was worlds away from her '50s Hollywood heyday. Preparing to take to the UK stage in a version of The Glass Menagerie, she collapsed in pain just before the curtains opened. Refusing medical treatment, Grahame instead asked to recuperate in Liverpool, at the family home of her younger ex-boyfriend and local actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell).
Adapted from Turner's memoir of the same name, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool doesn't play shy with its narrative. Even for those unfamiliar with this particular chapter in tinseltown's history, there's no prizes for guessing where it's all heading. And yet, much like the movie's multifaceted protagonist, first appearances soon prove to be misleading. Grahame was known for her brash femme fatales in the days of black-and-white cinema, but her on-screen persona only told part of her story. Directed with period flair and eye-catching scene transitions by Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein), the film that charts her final years likewise does more than just combine a tear-inducing tale of sickness with an unlikely romance.
Both love and illness feature prominently in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, with Grahame and Turner's time together unfolding in flashbacks while she's convalescing under the care of his mother (Julie Walters). In sequences from their early days together, she's spirited and sultry, and he's instantly smitten — whether they're trading lines to help her rehearse, catching a showing of Alien, or enjoying a sensationally seductive disco session in her London living room. Later, as she tries to ignore her worsening condition, she's defiant and he's doting, even as her impending demise hangs between them. From these contrasting glimpses, a touching portrait forms not only of a fading star, but of a fascinating, complicated woman and an equally intricate relationship.
As such, those eager for a full rundown of Grahame's career would do well to read up before (or after) they hit the cinema. Matt Greenhalgh's latest celebrity-focused screenplay (after Control, Nowhere Boy and The Look of Love) is more a character study than a cradle-to-grave biopic, evoking a entrancing sense of the actress' presence and personality rather than dwelling upon her work. In Grahame's contemplative backstage moments, her flirtatious looks and her all-round fighting spirit, the film serves up a multi-layered portrayal of a multi-layered figure. In doing so, it says as much about its subject as it does the industry's disdain for ageing, and society's lack of regard for older women in particular.
With all that in mind, it's hardly surprising that Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool benefits enormously from Bening's stellar performance. Despite missing out on well-deserved awards acclaim for both this and last year's 20th Century Women, the four-time Academy Award nominee just keeps going from strength to strength. Digging beneath glamour and vanity, and painting Grahame as vibrant and vulnerable all at once, Bening's work makes it easy to understand why Turner melts in her company. For his part, in his best role (and with his best dance scene) since Billy Elliot, Bell delivers a tender and textured performance. But when Bening shines, the whole bittersweet film shines with her.