CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Graham, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: Paul McGuigan

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: R for Tenderly Shot Brief Nudity

Release Date: December 29, 2017 (Limited)

There’s something a little strange about that title, and it’s so small that you might not even notice it. It took a few weeks for it to even cross my mind. People frequently say “movie stars,” but who regularly says “film stars”? The title is the same as the memoir it’s based on, so I guess we have to pin this one on Peter Turner. Maybe it’s a British thing. But there is something appropriately spellbinding about this particular phrasing. “Film” is a traditionally more respectable term than the common and vulgar “movie,” so “film stars” has a way of lending gravitas to frivolousness. Such is the fate of big names whose times have passed them by like Gloria Grahame.

Grahame was, as one character put its, “a proper film star,” and as another clarifies, she “always played the tart.” She achieved fame in the late ’40s and early ’50s, primarily in noirs like The Big Heat and The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won an Oscar). But as Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens, she is seeking stage work in London and looking for someone to take her disco dancing. Annette Bening acts the role with one layer upon another, wherein Grahame is always playing the part of the star in her day-to-day life. Or maybe a select few people really are just always that naturally alluring, i.e., they’re not really acting. Although, in a sense, everyone is always acting to some way, but perhaps with Grahame, her more outsize performances were much less of a put-on than the average person’s. Either way, into her orbit is drawn Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), and while their multiple decades age difference is a concern, it is no roadblock to genuine passion and affection.

Film Stars fundamentally tracks the importance of interpersonal acceptance. Gloria’s mother and sister are scandalized by her shacking up with a much younger man, while Peter’s family is there to take care of her when her cancer diagnosis becomes debilitating. But the greater struggle for acceptance is internal. Not only is it impossible for film stars to pass away in working-class English port towns, they cannot have diseases whose treatments are so aesthetically stripping. As Gloria comes to terms with her illness, the film takes on a woozy, dreamy quality. A humbling reality surrounds her, but a spectacular, star-making gaze is what she filters it through. It’s a little bit intoxicating.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Recommended If You Like: Billy Elliot (for the sake of the Jame Bell/Julie Walters reunion), Being Julia, Sunset Blvd.

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magical Cancer Recoveries