Thursday, 1 March 2018

Movie Review: Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool (2018)


The plot: Old Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), after a health scare backstage in the U.S., decides to go to Liverpool and stay with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor and Gloria's former lover. As Peter and his family take care of her and the two reconnect over their past, Gloria is faced with not only her own mortality but also how her age, his past romances and her career have shaped her and how she is perceived by others.


Bening plays a famous Golden Age Of Hollywood actress in a way that makes her come across as the genuine article, balancing out a seriously infectious spirit with the nimbleness required to weave through the surprisingly complex psychology of her character. Bell, considering this is his first film role since the legendary car crash that is Fant4stic, is quite relieving in how well he does in the role. He fits in nicely alongside Bening as his romantic interest, but it’s the way he handles his dialogue that deserves major points. He comes across like someone who makes mistakes but more out of his own awkwardness than anything resembling malice. As someone who tends to run across social anxiety more times than I would like, I can definitely sympathise. Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham and Stephen Graham as Peter’s family work okay, although they definitely pale in comparison to our main leads, Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother gives a lot of dramatic and even poetic oomph to her sole scene, and Frances Barber as Gloria’s sister delivers downplayed venom eerily well. Like, to the point where you start to wonder if that chemistry went beyond the frame; that’s how solid it is, even for a single conversation.

Even considering how the romance is meant to be the main draw of the film, it’s pretty muddled in how it’s handled. On one hand, the romantic chemistry is very good between our leads, making the May-December relationship work among the best I’ve seen when it comes to recent films. On the other hand, the story that revolves around that coupling is rather plain. The visuals end up telling a lot more than the dialogue does in most cases, like how Gloria’s health issues are revealed on-screen, but the main threads tying a lot of those moments together feels a bit lacklustre. As fun as it is to see Bening and Bell act off of each other, the writing doesn’t carry enough vibrance or intensity to make what we’re seeing really register that much.

Thankfully, Bening seems more than capable of carrying the entire film on her back, as the majority of the film’s best touches centre on her. For one, the way it deals with her sexuality is quite refreshing. Maybe it’s because the average moviegoer would follow up the phrase “older people have sex too” with a retort of “yeah, but I still don’t want to see it”, but seeing an older woman on-screen that is shown as being this in-control of her own libido is rather commendable. Knowing how romance and especially sex have largely been dominated by the picturesque, the young and the mostly lecherous, seeing something this tender not only gives Gloria’s love life a definite kick but it also goes some way to dispel a few myths concerning female sexuality. Bonus points for a rather small scene between her and Peter that alludes to bisexuality; this is the kind of representation that warms my heart ever so slightly. Hell, it even manages to balance that out with Gloria’s real-life romantic history, showing a rather refreshing amount of normalcy towards her line of ex-husbands that goes into reasonable questions about her commitment… but not to the point of shaming her at any point. Have to admit, that’s a hell of a tightrope to walk.

Same goes for how that plays into the notions of fame, love and beauty, taking Gloria’s position as a faded Hollywood starlet and running with it. It’s here that the film gets its biggest marks, as it not only highlights Gloria’s worries about how age has affected her, it also wraps it up in a coda that acknowledges her agency as a person. Parts of it are informed through her relationship with Bell, something shown with some serious finesse in how the film lets us witness both sides of the argument that ultimately splits them up, but the majority of it is informed by her own words and actions. As I’ve stated in the past, the usual MO for older actors on film nowadays is self-parody, as if they grew out of their own dignity. Seeing something like this that actively works against that notion, and gives quite a few reasons as to why that needn’t be the case, serves as a healthy reminder that there is still some life in those old bones yet. All they need is someone to show they care about them.

All in all, while definitely serviceable, I can’t help but feel like there is a better film in the heart of this whole thing. One that maintains the commendable acting and visual deftness found here but provides a more fulfilling romantic vibe that makes the ups and downs feel worthy to be witnessed. This has a lot of good going for it, most of which is down to Annette Bening’s fantastic performance, but in its entirety, I can only consider it an “okay” film.

It ranks higher than Darkest Hour, as this film doesn’t have any lingering pangs of déjà vu holding it back. If anything, what makes Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool worth checking out is how it delves into certain territory we don’t usually see as far as modern romantic cinema is concerned. It may not always hit home runs, but it more than makes the effort to be worth nothing. However, and I can already tell that this is going to sound bad, but I’m ranking below The Commuter. Yes, that same idea of “shit we haven’t seen done to death” still applies, but for pure engagement, this film left me somewhat lacking. The Commuter, as tired as it is around the edges, still managed to sell most of the aspects it aimed for, and that Goldman Sachs quip continues to linger in my mind as something made of cool.

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