With Sherlock and schlocky action films like Lucky Number Slevin and Victor Frankenstein the most famous projects on his resume, director Paul McGuigan might not be most obvious choice for a soft-spoken period romance. Though he brings some neat visual tricks, it doesn’t end up being a good fit of director and material, with Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool a turgid effort. There are kernels of a good film here, but even with a strong lead duo, this was not the team to bring this remarkable true story to life.
Though her fame didn’t last like that of her contemporaries Bogart, Bacall, et al, Gloria Grahame (played here by Annette Bening), was a major star of the ‘50s, but when we first meet her in 1981, her cachet has dropped considerably. Instead of living it up in Hollywood, she’s in a Lancaster theatre, doing her own makeup. After an illness causes Gloria to collapse, she reconnects with unlikely old flame Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a jobbing actor from a working class Liverpool family about 30 years her junior. They first met as neighbours in London in 1979, sparking a romance that would stay with each of them for the rest of their lives.
Bening and Bell are great, Bening’s performance as Gloria allowing her to embrace a more childish and impetuous character than she usually does, but while they’re good value, the film as a whole is honestly rather dull. Flat pacing makes the runtime feel a good deal longer than it is, and the charm of the relationship comes almost entirely from the actors rather than the tired, clichéd writing. Bringing in Julie Walters (as Peter’s mum Bella) is always a great idea, but she’s underused, making you wish you were just rewatching her turn in Brooklyn instead.
Fatally, neither lead is presented very sympathetically, so it’s hard to care when the couple goes off the rails. Gloria’s stubbornness swiftly turns frustrating, and her frankly worrying obsession with younger men (apparently she slept with her own underage stepson) is glossed over in a pretty unsavoury manner. Peter is less loudly flawed, but in his complete taking his caring family for granted, he doesn’t come off too well. A trip to America is pretty ill-advised, showcasing the worst of the characters in front of some frankly embarrassing CG backdrops.
It’s not all bad. Matt Greenhalgh’s script flits between time periods seamlessly and incorporates a really terrific dance scene that allows Bell to show off his ever-impressive physical capabilities. In support, Kenneth Cranham and Vanessa Redgrave add gravitas to their small roles, the whole ensemble more than pulling their weight. Yet, in the year of Call Me By Your Name, Shape of Water, A Ghost Story, and many more, to have a love story this flimsy makes for a film that gets washed away by the plentiful competition.