Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool review: Sexy, racy and well polished

Charlotte O'Sullivan
Billy who? Jamie Bell, starring alongside Annette Bening, gives a witty and heartfelt performance: Sony Pictures Classics/Lionsgate Films

Innocent Brit meets experienced Hollywood legend. The plot may sound familiar, but anyone who compares this movie to My Week With Marilyn deserves a knuckle sandwich. Simon Curtis’s project was about a gofer with attitude. In Paul McGuigan’s biopic, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) and Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) feel like equals, and their affair makes you want to shimmy in the streets.

The film floats backwards and forwards between 1979 and 1981. Gloria is a literate, fifty something ex-bombshell. Peter is a twenty-something lad from Liverpool. When they first clap eyes on each other they’re living in the same dingy Primrose Hill boarding house (thanks to the production team, you can all but smell the soiled carpets). One day Gloria asks Peter to help her get the hang of disco and, in a swirl of natural light, both wiggle their hips to Staying Alive.

After Billy Elliot, Bell chose to downplay the litheness of his limbs. I view this as a crime against cinema. In recent years he has resembled an ageing boy. Here he looks like a young man. His performance is witty, sexy and heartfelt.

Bening is just as magnificent. At one point someone says of Grahame: “She were a bloke’s actress.” Really? To appreciate Grahame’s charms you just need a pulse. The pert blonde, whether in film noirs or Technicolor extravaganzas, oozed sass and something close to self-loathing. She was deep. Bening captures the woman behind those gorgeously layered turns.

Gloria and Peter’s relationship founders. Yet when she becomes ill the star moves into Peter’s family home and basically becomes the Turners’ surrogate child. Peter’s mum (Julie Walters, reliably lovely) is happy to baby Gloria. Even Peter is roped into the electrifyingly odd game. Gloria says sweetly: “Would you burp me Peter, please?”

Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay makes us understand the origins of such dysfunction. In California Peter is introduced to Gloria’s flaky British mum (Vanessa Redgrave) and twisted sister (Frances Barber, hilarious).

Within seconds of meeting this pair we get why Gloria (married four times and a mother of four) has such a problem with blood ties. Yet this section of the movie also contains a crucial weakness. Reference is made to a rumour that even today is reported as fact: that Gloria once seduced her 13-year-old stepson.

In the film, Peter asks Gloria about it. She says it’s not true, and you assume this is going to be the start of a revelatory exchange (some think Grahame was the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by her enemies in Hollywood). But the subject is never touched on again.

Even if this is the conversation Gloria and Peter had in real life, it’s dramatically weak. And this year, of all years, it jars. If Grahame was a sexual predator, it really matters. Ditto if she wasn’t.

Early on, she describes a play she’s appearing in as involving “sex, sin and salvation”. Films Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool moves awkwardly around the topic of sin. How lucky that, when it comes to sex and salvation, it’s got dancing feet.

Cert 15, 105 mins