“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” dramatizes the relationship of waning Hollywood legend Gloria Grahame and young British actor Peter Turner — first as a star-crossed love story and later as a tragic melodrama.
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in the roles may be the year’s most sizzling onscreen couple. But it’s not enough to obscure the increasingly dreary nature of this story.
Largely forgotten in her later decades, Grahame was a major star who played femme fatales in the 1940s-50s. She received an Academy Award for her supporting performance in Vincente’s Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Her movie career faded when black and white gave way to color. A personal scandal added to her woes.
Directed by Paul McGuigan (“Wicker Park”) and written by Matt Greenhaigh (adapting Turner’s memoir), the drama repeatedly shifts between the period of the Grahame-Turner love affair, which begins in 1979, and Graham’s 1981 stay at the Turner home.
It starts in 1981, when Gloria (Bening), appearing in a play in England, collapses in her Lancaster hotel. She moves into the Liverpool family home of former lover Peter (Jamie Bell). She believes she’ll recover if Peter’s mother, Bella (Julie Walters, superb as always), takes care of her.
Gloria’s return to Peter’s life triggers a flashback to 1979.
In the boardinghouse where he lives, 20-something Peter thinks that 55-year-old Gloria is just a kooky older neighbor who dances to disco music with her door open. Gloria invites Peter to dance, “Saturday Night Fever” style, with him. The pair heat up the room.
A movie date follows, along with a pub visit. Peter, having learned of Gloria’s stardom, watches one of Gloria’s old films. It’s a wonderful scene. The two fall passionately in love.
Eventually, for reasons yet unrevealed, Gloria heartbreakingly instigates their breakup.
Bening’s Gloria is a riveting mess with a childlike quality, a considerable need for attention and a breathy voice that never suggests a Marilyn clone. Her zesty optimism makes her endearing even when she’s infuriating.
Bell, equally terrific, is electric as a young man intensely in love.
Together these characters generate so much chemistry that — for awhile at least — we can ignore the movie’s shortcomings.
But the nonlinear storytelling proves problematic.
While the frequent shifts in time from 1981 back to the earlier romantic scenes are a welcome diversion from the downbeatness of the illness material, they leave viewers feeling yanked around.
The increasing focus on Gloria’s sad decline comes at the expense of more potentially satisfying subjects, such as her film career.
Kenneth Cranham costars as Peter’s father. Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber play Gloria’s mother and sister, who reveal some of Gloria’s dark secrets.
Also worthy of mention is McGuigan’s visual eye, responsible for backgrounds resembling movie sets.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Two and a half stars
Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham
Written by Matt Greenhaigh
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Running time 1 hour, 46 minutes