Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Peter Turner’s story. Based on his memoir of the same name, the film, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, tells of Turner’s affair with fading film star, Gloria Grahame, and the extraordinary tale of how she came to live out her last days with his mum and dad in 1980s Liverpool.
The performances here are exemplary: both Jamie Bell (as Peter) and Annette Bening (as Gloria) are on top form, and their relationship is affectingly conveyed. Bening convinces absolutely as the ex-Hollywood sexpot, holding her head up high and forging a career in British theatre: proud but vulnerable; confident but insecure. Bell is also utterly credible as the young Turner, flattered by the attentions of someone so famous, falling hopelessly in love. And it’s a touching story: rejected by the film industry, out of touch with her family and dying of cancer, Gloria turns to her ex-lover for the warmth she knows his ‘ordinary’ family can offer, and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) are more than happy to oblige.
A shame, then, that there isn’t more on offer here. There’s a stellar cast without much to do: Vanessa Redgrave, as Gaynor’s mother, says almost nothing of note; Frances Barber, as her sister, does what she can with a couple of bitchy lines. Walters stands out, as she always does, but is criminally under-used, never called upon to offer anything more than ‘kindly mum.’ The marvellous Stephen Graham plays Peter’s brother, but his talent is wasted: he just sits at the kitchen table wearing one of Harry Enfield’s Scouser wigs, whinging occasionally and looking meaningfully at his strangely silent wife (Leanne Best).
I think the problem is that it’s all very rose-tinted, too closely based, perhaps, on Turner’s memoir, without enough space for the spiky complexity of human reality. It’s superficial and chocolate-boxy: a special memory preserved as in a photo-book, rather than an engaging film that allows its characters to show their flaws. And the story arc lacks drama too, never really building, never really drawing us in. This is a film that relies entirely on its central performances; the casting director (Debbie McWilliams) has done a sterling job; thanks to her, it’s not an entirely missed opportunity.