Film review – Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017)

 

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame was one of the leading stars of Hollywood’s film noir era. With a film career that spanned the 1940s to the 1970s, she enjoyed commercial and critical success for her varied roles, including the seductive Violet Bick in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), her Oscar-nominated role as Ginny Tremaine in Crossfire (1947), headstrong neighbour Laurel Gary in In A Lonely Place (1950) and the shallow Rosemary Bartlow in The Bad and The Beautiful (1957), the latter of which earned her an Academy Award win.

In 1974, Gloria had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Following successful treatment, the cancer went into remission.

By 1978, she had relocated to Liverpool to work on a play, co-habiting with a young man named Peter Turner, who was just 26-years-old. It was Turner with whom she formed an unlikely romance and ended up having a relationship with him that lasted until the end of her life.

Grahame was 57 when she died in October 1981.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool

An adaptation of Peter Turner’s book of the same title, the film covers the final two years of Grahame’s life, spent largely in Liverpool, and less so in Manhattan, as she played out this romantic relationship with Turner. It is at turns baffling and equally heartbreaking that a woman who had once lived next door to Lauren Becall and Humphrey Bogart would end her life in a small council house in Liverpool, far from the glamorous life she so obviously thrived on in her earlier years.

One of the most important aspects of a believable romantic film is the chemistry between those portraying the central characters. Jamie Bell and Annette Bening have it in buckets, never once failing to be brilliantly convincing. Whether it’s the scene in which she spontaneously instigates a spot of disco dancing in her spacious flat, or casually and flintily orders a pint at the local pub as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, it is clear the are completely at ease with one another.

Benning paints a frustrated picture of Grahame. Her angry response at Turner suggesting she is older than she believed she was is jarring and unexpected and reveals a lot about her character. She may have delivered a memorably-celebrated performance as Ado Annie in the blockbuster musical Oklahoma! in 1955, but she felt too old for the part even at the age of 32 (the part typically demands an actress around ten years younger than this’d she was just two years younger than James Whitmore who portrayed her fathering the film). Her continued desire to have relationships with younger men may be viewed as untoward in the current climate, but it was perhaps indicative that she simply saw herself as younger than she was and unable to accept that she was ageing.

But this is a subtle and developing romance. Peter enters the relation naively, discovering more about the woman he loves as time progresses. There’s a memorable scene where he goes to watch a Grahame picture at a retrospective at a local arthouse cinema, which reveals to him just how successful she was. Later on, the heartbreaking scene as she reads Shakespeare on an empty stage with Turner – thus fulfilling a lifelong dream – is one that really packs an emotional punch.

The attention to detail on the scenery and props is exemplary, invoking the 1980s era perfectly. It’s easy to portray a caricature of the 1980s in anything set there, but this feels as miserable and as outdated as you’d expect a port town in 1981 to feel.

The soundtrack goes some way to furthering this overall impression. Tracks from Elvis Costello, A Taste of Honey and Elton John add to the sense of the age. There is also a beautifully wistful new composition from Elvis Costello titled “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way”, which is surely a strong contender for an Oscar nomination this year.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a beautiful and heartbreaking film with some strong performances and a final result that makes it one of the best dramas of the year.

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Film review – 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)

To mark 2017’s International Women’s Day, I dropped into the cinema to catch 20th Century Women, a film with three powerful and independent women at the heart of its plot. A triple Bechdel Test passer, the film indeed avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them.

In 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) is a 15-year-old boy who is lacking a father figure in his life. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been long-single, but lives in a luxuriously huge house that she has converted into a sort of commune, in which lives a young female photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an emotionally-detached carpenter and handyman William (Billy Crudup) who is renovating the house for her. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a girl with whom Jamie is unrequitedly besotted; she wishes for him to remain as a friend only whilst she has a series of never-seen male sexual partners.

Mike Mills has cultivated an intelligent film from his own original script, describing it as a love letter to the women who raised him.

It’s the sort of quirky and intimate story that can only be crafted from ones own experiences, with two fingers up to the notion that boys need fathers and girls need mothers in order to be raised properly. Interestingly, whilst there are innumberable films that explore fathers being thrust into the role of both mother and father figures to both boys and girls, the concept of a group of women creating a support network for growth of a teenage boy feels wholly fresh and quite important.

The standout performance in a solid cast comes from Greta Gerwig, who I have seen in several films previously and never been excessively impressed with. This time, she is absolutely mesmerising as a young woman who is recovering from cervical cancer. We learn that the cancer was probably linked to her mother’s Diethylstilbestrol (DES) drug treatment during her pregnancy. She has been effectively disowned by her guilt-stricken mother, unable to cope with the fact she feels responsible for causing her daughter’s cancer. As a role, this is no light task, and Gerwig is at times totally breathtaking in her performance.

It is strange that the boy whose life the story revolves around eventually turns out to be a supporting character to the three leads. It is a lovingly-created film that is as relatable to mothers as it is to sisters of brothers and as it is to sons. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.