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Review: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – “A beautiful and moving story”

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Gloria Grahame was a huge star back in the day. To me, though, she was the woman in It’s a Wonderful Life who utters the infamous ‘why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look’ with a cheeky grin.

Of course, the reality ran much deeper than what film fans knew of her. She was married numerous times and had a relationship in later life with a young actor called Peter Turner.

This film is the story of that relationship.

With Annette Bening and Jamie Bell playing the two leads, this was always going to be a great watch. The pair are electric and, despite the age gap between them, fully inhabit these two delightful characters and all the love and affection between them. While Bell brings a real depth to his complex and nuanced Peter, it is Bening who steals the show. She brings both the intimate fragility of Grahame and the superstar.

Matt Greenhalgh’s script flawlessly switches between two timelines: offering both the lightness of Gloria and Peter’s early relationship and the bittersweet sadness of their reunion when she shows up, a couple of years after their break-up, sick, and asks to stay with Peter and his family.

We see her worry about her appearance, her health, her career. She worries what people will think of her, privately and publicly, and she longs to just rest and go somewhere where people only care about Gloria the woman, not the Hollywood star.

However, she doesn’t want to let her family know she’s unwell and she’s convinced being there with Peter, being looked after by Peter’s mum, will make her feel better. Mum Bella (Julie Walters) is as starstruck as she is homely and welcoming. And, of course, Walters is so ridiculously talented that still possesses the power to turn me into a weepy mess with just one line of dialogue.

As Gloria gets sicker, and as you start to take in the reality of the story and the real people behind it, the film loses its lightness and becomes painfully sad. There’s just so much happening that is beyond their control and you’re so wholly invested in these people that you just want the best for them. But they are a family and they will protect each other to the end.

Despite the sweet and complex love story at its centre, the film also offers a fascinating commentary on the pressures on actresses to always be smiling and happy and looking immaculate. There are some parts so infuriating that you just want to scream at them – but hindsight makes wise owls of us all.

Director Paul McGuigan has assembled a superb team here, both in front of and behind the camera. What caught me quite off guard was just how gut-wrenching the film is. There’s a lot to laugh at here: for one, the mere idea of a big Hollywood movie star hanging out in the spare room of some small-time actor’s family home in Liverpool is all a bit hilarious. It’s the kind of story you just wouldn’t buy if it were fiction.

Ultimately, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a beautiful and moving story with a hint of cheeky humour and two phenomenal central performances. (If there’s any justice, Bening will surely get award love for her portrayal of Grahame.) It’s a class act in cinema, but one that will require a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is out in cinemas on 16th November 2017.

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