They say that 90 percent of directing is casting – if so, this film is golden. Jamie Bell and Annette Bening own their roles of the young, struggling actor falling in love with the beautiful, aging movie star. “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” based on Peter Turner’s memoir, opens with a knockout scene in a North London boarding house with Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) seducing the young Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). She is in town for a star run in “The Glass Menagerie” and plaintively asks him, with her baby-doll voice, if he could do her a favor (!) and “hustle” with her to the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack – she needs a dance partner. The fabulous “Billy Elliot” star obliges and they have an awesome and very sensual dance scene. Even though there is a huge age difference (28 years), you believe in their attraction.
Director Paul McGuigan toggles between the beginning of their love affair and the end stage where Gloria is terminally ill. She believes that she could recover if only she could stay with Peter’s family in Liverpool. As his mother, Julie Walters is pitch perfect as the warm presence that Gloria believes will cure her of her illness. It is wonderful seeing Jamie Bell and Julie Walters reuniting 17 years after his breakthrough performance in” Billy Elliot” where she was his dance teacher. Walters brings sensitivity and emotional intelligence to this drama and tells Peter at the end, “Time to let go of her, son”: Good advice that a young man needs from his mom.
Other delicious casting offers us a wonderful scene in Los Angeles with Vanessa Redgrave playing Gloria’s mother and Frances Barber as her bitter sister, Joy. They not-so-discreetly inform the young lover of the sordid details of Gloria’s marital history, including an affair with her 13-year-old stepson whom she later married. Watching Peter receive this information is heartbreaking. With just a flicker, he has taken it in and Gloria flashes the beginning of her mercurial moods.
Likewise, when he visits her in New York City and she mysteriously disappears for days, Gloria shows an ugly side that thoroughly upends young Peter. Later the sad reason for her disappearance is revealed, but their romance is over.
During the high point of their affair, the actress needs reassurance from her young lover constantly: “Tell me, how do I look?” He is madly in love and sees her aging looks in the most favorable light. Annette Bening is brilliant as always and deserves an Oscar nod. Perhaps this would make up for her being overlooked by the Academy for her brilliant performance in last year’s “20th Century Women” (if you haven’t seen it, rent it!). In this film she captures the breathy voice, neediness, and aging face of her subject–it is a brave performance. It brings to mind her work in “The Grifters”– Bening brings the strut from that film back with the added vulnerability of age and illness.
One of the last moments evoked sobs throughout the audience: Young Peter indulged Gloria in her wish to play Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, a scene worth the price of admission. At the end she chose her leading man well.