Dir: Paul McGuigan

With: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters

Runtime: 106 minutes

Loading article content

SCOTS director Paul McGuigan’s drama is home to two splendid reunions: the first between Jamie Bell and Julie Walters, budding ballet dancer and teacher respectively in Billy Elliot; the second is between the late Gloria Grahame and the public recognition she deserves.

Grahame, who won the best supporting Oscar in 1953 for The Bad And The Beautiful, also starred in It’s A Wonderful Life, The Big Heat and many another Hollywood classic. She was an old school actress, a trouper, and in Annette Bening, who plays her here, she finds a friend indeed.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool opens with Gloria in decidedly unstarry circumstances. The show is still going on, the usual music plays while she puts on her make-up, she dips into the same pill box (complete with an inscription from Bogie, no less), but the dressing room is shabby and the face in the mirror, though beautiful still, is tired. This evening is destined to end not with curtain calls and bouquets but with a call to the person listed as her next of kin, Peter Turner (played by Jamie Bell), on whose memoir the film is based.

Gloria, in England for work, has collapsed after a hospital stay and is in need of a pal. Turner, who has not heard from her in years, decides the best he can do is take her back to his mum and dad’s house in Liverpool. And so the stage is set for the title to live up to its pledge, or not.

From a wintry Liverpool in the early 1980s, McGuigan spools back to happier times in London years before. Turner is working as a waiter while waiting for his break as an actor, Gloria is the exotic new tenant in the Primrose Hill boarding house. He is too young to know who she is, but it is clear she was a somebody.

The two hit it off, make each other laugh and, as Lauren Bacall once said of Bogie, you know where that leads. It’s a delightful set-up, made more so by a scene of Turner disco dancing with Bening. Once Billy Elliot …

The fine romance must sooner or later deal with the large age gap between the two, an issue that was never to go away, and one that Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay looks straight in the eye. When Grahame tells him she wants to play Juliet to his Romeo, Turner replies unkindly, “You mean the nurse, don’t you?”

The love that the two had is mirrored and magnified in the welcome the Turner family give to the ailing Gloria years later. So McGuigan flits back and forth between an increasingly fraught romance in the past and the bleak present. He works wonders with a very small budget, though every now and then the lack of cash shows, particularly when the action switches to America. Even here, though, the quality of the cast, including Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother, makes up for the quantity of cash spent.

One advantage of the small budget is that it gives Film Stars the feel of a classic British ensemble piece, with a whole stage full of outstanding actors, from Walters and Kenneth Cranham to Stephen Graham and Redgrave, turning out to do their bit.

It’s the screen relationship between Bell and Bening, however, that is the beating heart of the piece. Bell flits between puppyish suitor and spurned lover with ease, while Bening plays the big star fallen to earth with grace to spare. Like a certain other star said, Gloria remained big in the eyes of her fans, it’s the pictures that got small.

This is an unashamed love letter both to the Hollywood of old and to the idea that true friendship can stand any test that time or age puts in its way.

Be sure to stick around for a glimpse of the real Gloria picking up her Oscar. If there is a dry eye in the house it won’t be for want of effort on the part of McGuigan and his cast.

Also released this week is Strangled (18) ***, a film that is as repellent as Film Stars is warm and engaging.

From the true story of a serial killer who operated in provincial Hungary in the 1960s, Arpad Sopsits has nevertheless crafted a riveting police procedural/political thriller that exposes the bleakness of life in the Communist state after the uprising of 1956.

Worth seeing for that reason, but be warned: they really aren’t kidding with that 18 certificate.