Annette Bening and Jamie Bell dance their way into your hearts in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Really, they do. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, they’re grooving to Boogie Oogie Oogie inside Gloria Grahame’s boarding house. Yes, obviously, there’s an age difference between Gloria (Annette) and aspiring actor Peter (Jamie), but he’s very, very into her. If you’re wondering why or how an Oscar winner like Gloria ended up in Liverpool on the theatre circuit, you are missing the point.
Gloria’s star may have dimmed, but she remains always “on” and she wants Peter to be a part of her life, as much as she says she doesn’t. She wants to be adored, and Peter falls for her quickly. She’s fun, vibrant, sexy, and carries herself as if she’s still a star, because she is. In Annette’s words, Gloria is “written with flaws”. Yet, this movie is all about the strength of their connection, and starting fresh in a relationship, in spite of one’s notorious reputation or emotional backstory. She’s a complicated woman, trying to keep several secrets from bubbling up to the surface, but Peter’s just going along for the ride. The film moves back and forth through time as if it’s a lucid dream, and much like Vanilla Sky, you’re constantly reassessing whether or not you’re getting the full story.
Without giving too much away, there’s a twist in this movie which, in etalk’s Devon Soltendieck’s terms, is “like seeing the Emerald City for the first time.” It makes you rethink every romantic or personal choice you see in the movie, and possibly, in your own life. Gloria and Peter are able to maintain their connection in spite of other people’s perceptions of who they are, what they’ve done, or who they should be. It’s a beautiful love story, and when I screened it last week, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Of course there are several parallels to look into here: Gloria Grahame is an Oscar winner who struggled in her later years to get work, respect, and maintain her familial ties. Annette has never won an Oscar, which is bonkers because she’s a one in a generation talent. There’s a big age difference in the Gloria-Peter relationship, and Annette herself is married to a Hollywood legend with a formerly notorious reputation, Warren Beatty, who is older than her. But this could be the one for her.
It’s accessible, heartbreaking and works on every level. If you believe love is something that should be shown not told, than you truly see it “shone” in this movie. It will also make you rethink May-December romances. So, ahem, yes, I ship Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence even more now. And this is also a career-defining role for Jamie Bell. When we interviewed the film’s director Paul McGuigan in our etalk lounge, he said this movie works so well because Jamie’s eyes are “so reactive.” He’s right. There’s a warmth to their bond together, and you feel the love he has for her, and how she disarms him, both when she’s vibrant and also as she dims. Even the cast knows it’s a hit. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film about a month before TIFF. This is the same studio that picked up Still Alice from TIFF in 2014 and helped Julianne Moore earn her first Oscar. But they only bought it after they saw it. Will they be able to do the same for Annette? It’s definitely possible. Annette’s been attached to this part for 20 years, and reportedly based her performance in The Grifters on Gloria. It’s made for her, and for her talents.
Warren, Annette, Jamie and Kate Mara were all at the premiere of the film on Tuesday night. Jamie talked about the disco dancing they do at the start of the film, as did Annette, who insisted she wanted to prove to her four kids that she’s a cool mom, and a great dancer. This is a pretty cool foursome. On one hand, you have two Hollywood legends who are reveling in the moment, and on the other, you have two stars ready and hungry to make a name for themselves. Next up, though, is their biggest challenge: turning this beloved critical hit into a box office must-see. And I can’t wait to see it again.