Have you ever heard a really great story from a friend, only to hear another friend attempt to retell that same story and butcher it in the process? That butchering is the experience of watching “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” There is a real moving and heartfelt story here, a mismatched romance and a testament to the endearing truth that love is love is love. But director Paul McGuigan and writer Matt Greenhalgh overemphasize and under-utilize random bits and pieces of this magnificent Hollywood tale sitting in front of them, trying to make a madame but instead creating a monster.
The true story is about dying actress Gloria Grahame and the passionate romance she shared with a much younger man named Peter Turner in her final days. In this movie, Grahame is played by Annette Benning, who does a good job with what she’s given, naturally wearing Grahame’s weathered skin like a fine-tailored dress. er performance is filled with moments of somber nuance and giddy, reckless abandon. Watching Benning dance is watching Grahame dance, watching Benning be cry silently in bed is like time-traveling to see Grahame shed a tear in her own Hollywood bedroom.
Jamie Bell also does a fine job as Peter, an aspiring actor who is always shrouded in mystery. Bell gives Peter Turner a touch of confidence but a boatload of intrigue, a worthy romantic vessel for someone like Grahame to claim captain. But when they meet and they jive and they boogie, there is no rhythm in their fawning footsteps. The kisses are real but the romance feels forced, not a shred of chemistry between them, making this real-life story feel seemingly implausible.
That isn’t Bell or Benning’s fault, but it is McGuigan and Greenhalgh’s. See, the movie has this obnoxious tendency of jumping back and forth between present day and past. It’s a valuable framing device at first, establishing that their short-lived romance is doomed. But the story jumps completely ruin the emotional impact these characters are serving. We aren’t able to take Grahame or her illness seriously because she’s emphasized as such a shrill, silly woman early on in the film. And when she does finally get sick, the film takes what feels like two hours to remind us of every moment in the movie where her illness was showing but we didn’t see it. Seriously, we have to go back and rewatch entire scenes and sequences from Benning’s point of view now that the movie has finally revealed her diagnosis! Even though it was so fucking obvious from the get go that reason she was acting so silly throughout the film was because SHE JUST LEARNED SHE HAD FUCKING CANCER!!!!!
Even if that wasn’t obvious to other moviegoers, they don’t need to watch entire scenes all over again. It also emphasizes just how clever “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” thinks it is, and how much it misses the mark. The film gives us no true sense of space or time: New York feels the same as Los Angeles, and 1979 is apparently the same year as 1981. Perhaps the film’s transitory, ephemeral nature is meant to symbolize how everyone knew this romance would be a short-lived thing but Grahame and Turner still made a lifetime’s worth of memories witih their time together. But it’s more likely that “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is just a poorly written and directed movie.