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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X+Y (Morgan Matthews, 2014)

X+Y is a British film from BBC Films that follows the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a teenage mathematics prodigy who is more comfortable dealing with numbers than he is with people. When he is selected to represent Great Britain on the International Mathematical Olympiad, he is forced to travel to Taiwan. As pressure to perform in the tournament grows and he finds an unlikely source of romance in Zhang Mai (Jo Yang), he soon finds that being out of his comfort zone is the starting point for a challenging journey of self-realisation.

One thing I was worried about as I sat there in the cinema waiting for it to start, was how they were going to portray autism. Inevitably we’re going to compare lead character Nathan to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, probably the two most iconic on-screen portrayals of people on the autistic spectrum. Unfortunately for sufferers of autism, this drastically sells the condition short to people who aren’t overly aware of it. Autism is a condition that affects those close to someone on the spectrum as much as the person themselves, and to assume that they will simply be a bit awkward around people and good at maths is doing it a misjustice. Many sufferers find comfort in the strict rules set out in maths – it’s an emotionless interest. However, others find the same solace in a regimented interpretation of music, with its repetitive patterns and melodies and set mathematics behind complimentary frequencies of notes. Others become obsessive over lists and facts, whatever the topic might be. Others just don’t. There are mild forms of autism and severe forms, which is why diagnosis can be tricky as early signs can’t be placed on the spectrum by someone unfamiliar with the condition. 

So it’s unfortunate that autism has been portrayed on screen by means of a maths genius yet again, even though the director has previous work on autism (2008’s Beautiful Young Minds), which covers it in a more factual manner. However, X+Y is by no means just a light-hearted walk in the park and I enjoyed the fact a lot of time was spent with Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) as she came to terms with the loss of a close relative with no emotional support from her son. This was an important portion of the film that gave the right emphasis to the right areas and should be applauded.



I felt Butterfield’s portrayal of a child suffering from autism was very accurate, and I felt the frustration seeping through his inability to understand others. He has become a very accomplished actor throughout the three or four major films he has been part of so far, and as long as he keeps his feet on the ground for a couple more years he will continue to be successful for a long time.

Another great performance was from Jake Davies as Luke, whose character was a much more acute sufferer of autism. One scene involving a dead prawn stuck out for me and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from him in the future.

The comradery of the maths students didn’t ring true for me. From first hand experience (I partook in mathematics competitions as a child, to some success), these competitions are far from a sociable affair, with most children very much “in the zone” and either unable or unwilling to communicate with their peers. It was a case of get in, do maths, win. Anything else was just unneccesary. So when there’s laughing and joking and, most notably, a cringeworthy rap session (including an awful rhymical recitation of Pi), I just thought back to the suits and classical music I had to endure and wondered how much it really could have changed.

I felt let down by the end. I’m not going to go into details as the film is yet to be released, but it just didn’t ring true to me and seemed to undo a lot of hard work they’d put in earlier in the film in a manner that suggests to me they got lost with the message they wanted to send out. I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.

Overall it’s a very accomplished film and has many enjoyable points, but I didn’t feel it quite fulfilled its potential.

X+Y is released at UK cinemas on 13th March 2015.

The Party’s Over (Guy Hamilton, 1963)

The BFI Flipside series is, according to the back of the Blu-ray box, dedicated to “rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions.” I picked up a few of them when my local Zavvi finally closed down a couple of years ago (yes, there really did used to be Zavvi shops that you could walk into), meaning a lot of Masters of Cinema and BFI releases were reduced to about £7-8. One that I picked up and put at the bottom of my “to watch” list was The Party’s Over, Guy Hamilton’s 1963 controversial release.

Opening with a drunken Chelsea party, we’re immediately introduced to Oliver Reed’s pack leader Moise (pronounced “Mo-Eece”). He’s a handsome and popular guy, not afraid of being the centre of attention but equally happy to slip into the background. He shows off a bit and everyone looks on in admiration. This is then juxtaposed by a painfully cool opening sequence as Melina (Luoise Sorel) walks towards the camera, brilliantly soundtracked by Annie Ross and John Barry.

A shot from the cool opening sequence

A shot from the painfully cool opening sequence

It’s obviously a film that isn’t afraid to glamorise its subject matter and candidly display every part of their lives, and I suspect that was one of the reasons it was withheld from release subject to several cuts and changes. This was 1963 after all, and censor John Trevelyan perhaps thought an audience besotted by a young new group called The Beatles were unnerved enough without this kind of film further rotting their brain. In short, the world wasn’t quite ready for the subject matter [1].

Despite a decent range of characters, it is Oliver Reed who steals the show throughout. His is a character that snaps his fingers and gets what he wants immediately, such is the influence he has over his beatnik and largely non-descript gang members. As the plot develops through some shocking developments – including sexual assault and suicide – it is Reed that maintains his position as the driving force of the narrative, much as Moise is the driving force of the gang.

It is a shame that there are several lacklustre performances. The supporting cast look like they’re straight out of acting school and don’t look overly comfortable in front of the camera. Several of the leading cast either overact or lack conviction, which is quite an achievement in itself when you think about it. Carson (Clifford David), Meilna’s fiancé, provides a solid performance and rescues the film from being a poor one-man-show.

BFI Flipside has been responsible for a number of excellent releases, with as much care given to their release as any famous film. Whilst the audience is undoubtedly more niche, it’s great that we are able to watch a film like The Party’s Over without any edits as the production team originally intended [2]. It’s not a film that has changed my life, but it might have had a much greater impact on the landscape of cinema had the censors not got involved some 50 years ago [3].

The Party’s Over is out now on BFI dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD.

[1] This release contains extensive words on both the censoring of the film and the director’s recollection of making and editing the film in line with the increasing pressure from Trevelyan.

[2] According to the booklet, one edit was made at the request of the director, with the removal of the credits over the opening sequence. It is unnoticeable unless, I suspect, you vividly remember to original.

[3] The Wikipedia page suggests the film was made in 1965. It was eventually released in 1965, but I’ve decided to list the film as a 1963 release. This was done because the version presented is as close as we’ve ever got to a version director Guy Hamilton’s pre-censor vision. The film was completed in 1963 and this is the version I have reviewed. For completionists, the 1965 version is also included on the Blu-Ray disc.

Lilting (Hong Khaou, 2014)

Hong Khaou’s Lilting is a film of understated power. Watching it is a deeply moving experience.

The plot deals with the unexpected death of a young man played by Kai, and the toll this takes on his lover Richard (played by Ben Whishaw) and his mother Junn (played by Cheng Pep-pei). The snag in the situation is that the mother is unaware that her son is homosexual, and the situation is made more complex by the fact that Richard intends to respect his lover’s wish to keep this secret whilst at the same time ensuring Junn is looked after, which raises issues that are extenuated by the fact they have no common language. Or rather, they don’t until Ben hires a translator, though this gives rise to as many issues as it resolves.

This is a complicated storyline to see through and could easily fall flat with poor performances. Junn is brilliantly stubborn and cold, though we can see a heartbroken woman underneath the façade. Whishaw’s turn is an absolute revelation and every quirk adds to the belief that he is completely ripped apart by the situation.

A large amount of praise also needs to be heaped on the unwillingness to shy away from the fact we are seeing a homosexual relationship. So many times in films we see same-sex relationships implied but rarely do we see the playful intimacies and passion of such a relationship. This isn’t to say that there are any gratuitous sex-scenes, but the story called for the young men to be very much in love and the closeness is not shirked. Hopefully this is something we will see more of in the future.

Lilting is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a stunning study of the emotions people go through when someone they are close to dies with a secret, and the difficult resolutions they find to deal with the loss. If you get a chance to see it, then grasp it with both hands.

Lilting is out now in selected cinemas across the UK, and will be released in the USA on 26th September 2014.

Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 2014)

Screened in competition for Best British Film at the BFI London Film Festival 2013, Starred Up was a film I knew very little about but had high expectations for, and it didn’t disappoint.

We are introduced to the lead character Eric Love, portrayed by Jack O’Connell (Skins, This is England), who has been “starred up” from a young offenders’ institution to a jail for adults for excessive violence. As the story develops, we go on a personal journey with him as he struggles to deal with the fact he is no longer the king pin in his new home.

Helping him on his journey is prison therapist Oliver, played brilliantly by Rupert Friend (Homeland). He builds up a close relationship with both him and several fellow inmates also going through the therapy sessions. It is in these sessions that we begin to learn a different side to our protagonist, one that he hides from everyone else he comes into contact with in the prison.

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The twist in the tale lies in the fact Eric’s father is also incarcerated in the same jail, and this is where his struggle lies. He is finally able to spend time with his father, but cannot cope with the fact that in spite of all the larger inmates and all the guards, the one person who has control over him is the one that he blames for being in prison in the first place. It is this dynamic that really allows O’Connell to flex his acting muscles, and show he can play much more than the jack-the-lad tough guy. As an actor, he has a serious amount of talent on offer and at such a young age must feel like the world is his to take on.

Much of the praise for the successes the film enjoys must go to screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser won the LFF Best British Newcomer award for this film, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s an authentic and intelligent script that draws on his own personal experiences and it ensures that what could have been a run-of-the-mill prison drama becomes much more than that – a study of an individual’s struggle against authority and personal responsibility.

Starred Up is released in UK cinemas on 21st March 2014.

See a clip of the film here or the trailer here.<br />
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