Based on the 1986 memoir by British actor Peter Turner, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool chronicles the final months of actor Gloria Grahame, who charmed audiences in the forties and fifties. Grahame made films with the biggest names in Hollywood, and she won an Oscar in 1952 for The Bad and the Beautiful.
Annette Bening plays Grahame circa 1979, after she has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is taking small stage roles in England to supplement her fading film career. In a Liverpool boarding house, she meets Turner (Jamie Bell), an earnest working-class thespian three decades her junior. They enjoy a tender love affair, although Peter later learns that Gloria has left behind four ex-husbands in the States.
Scottish director Paul McGuigan sets a gloomy tone. The dying Grahame moves in with Peter's parents and siblings, adopting them as a kind of desperate, last-ditch surrogate family. A clever flashback structure illuminates deep dysfunctions in Grahame's past in California. As Liverpool's most eligible bachelor, Bell brings effortless charisma to the screen. (You may remember him as the original Billy Elliot.) And it's a treat to see Vanessa Redgrave as Grahame's old-school Hollywood stage mom. ("You were as good as the other one, what's her name, the blonde girl who had the affair with the president.")
But this is Bening's movie all the way, and she gives herself entirely to the role. She deploys the naturalism of contemporary acting while also suggesting that particular mannered style of postwar Hollywood. Liverpool gets a mite mawkish in spots, but Bening's performance is a skillful tribute to Grahame and golden age filmmaking.