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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool doesn’t seem to care whether you know it’s true. Adapted by director Paul McGuigan from Peter Turner’s memoir, the film presents a love story that’s touching because of its fine performances and delicate turns of events; it doesn’t matter who these characters are, it’s what they show us that counts. And what they show us is that celebrity doesn’t shield one from life-threatening developments and that age ain’t nothing but a number.
The fact that it is based on a real couple makes it all the more bittersweet. Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) was an Oscar-winning actress whose career peaked in the 1950s. We meet her in 1981 England, where she’s starring in a stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Before the curtain’s raised, though, Gloria crumples to the ground and eventually calls on Peter (Jamie Bell), her much younger lover from whom it’s suggested she’s estranged. She wants to go to Peter’s home in Liverpool and have his mum (Julie Walters) nurse her back to health.
McGuigan tells the couple’s story by using elegant flashbacks that flow organically from the present day. It begins in 1979, when Peter is captivated by a boarding-house neighbor performing vocal exercises. Gloria strikes up a conversation with him, which includes the promise of a drink if he’ll disco-dance with her in her room. He accepts, and Bell busts an onscreen move for the first time since his breakout role in 2000’s Billy Elliot.
Their blossoming romance isn’t all romping-on-the-beach montages or steamy sex. McGuigan is more interested in the small—and more interesting—moments. The first time Peter visits Gloria’s L.A. home. Sneaking out the backdoor of a club that hosts the elite, only for hypersensitive Gloria storm off after Peter makes a joke. A scene in which Gloria, terrifically vulnerable, turns to Peter and quite seriously asks, “How do I look?” This time, he says the right thing, and it’s achingly obvious that he means it.
The film spends just as much time in the present, however, when things aren’t so good. It’s clear that Gloria needs medical attention, but she refuses to go to a hospital. “I can get better,” she tells Peter, who becomes torn between what she wants and what his family insists on.
Though Bell is impressively understated here, Bening makes the film. She recalls Melanie Griffith with her blond hair and high voice, the latter a true feat considering her normally low pitch. In the film’s final chapter, McGuigan repeats scenes from Gloria’s perspective; first we’d seen Peter’s frustration as Gloria lies about her whereabouts and grows cold, and then we see her face during his confrontations, with Bening’s Gloria heartbreakingly devastated after having just received a diagnosis. Yes, this is a two-hanky flick. But thanks to the cast, it never sinks to maudlin sentimentality—whether it really happened or not.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens Friday at ArcLight Bethesda and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic.