Love and Mersey
A moment's investigation and thought would reveal that James Bond films, like white Christmases, are not as common as they once were. Back in the sixties and very early seventies, when Sean Connery (and, briefly, George Lazenby) held the post, your average wait for a new Bond movie was 1.3 years. This drifted up to 2 years throughout the time that Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were making the films. Since then, however, with Pierce Brosnan and most recently Daniel Craig, this has shot up to an average gap between films of 3.7 years.
What this means for the quality and standing of the franchise I am not entirely sure, but what it means for the folks at Eon Productions, makers of the official Bond series for 55 years now, is that they have a lot more time on their hands than has sometimes been the case in the past. So what are they going to do with themselves while not arguing with Daniel Craig's agent over the size of his fee and coming up with damn silly ideas about Bond and Blofeld being long-lost brothers? Well, apparently they have decided to branch out and do other things, with the first fruits of this diversification being Paul McGuigan's Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool. (Eon's last non-Bond film starred Bob Hope and was entitled Call Me Bwana – a poster for it appears in From Russia With Love – which should tell you how long they've been ploughing their very particular furrow.)
The vaguely Drop The Dead Donkey-esque title probably suggests something more offbeat and spiky than is actually the case, for this is one of those supposedly true stories based on a memoir of the same name by an actor named Peter Turner, detailing his relationship with Gloria Grahame, a noted actress of the 1940s and 50s. Jamie Bell plays Peter, and Annette Bening plays the star.
The film opens in 1981, with Grahame being taken ill while preparing to appear on stage in the north of England. Rather to their surprise, the various members of the Turner family (Peter's parents are played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) find themselves caring for the clearly ailing star, who has fond memories of them from her prior romance with Peter. But how did the two of them even get together, given the difference in their status and age (she is, not to be indelicate about it, rather older than he is)?
Well, the movie jumps back and forth between 1979 and 1981 to fill in the details of the story: Peter and Gloria meet while staying in the same lodgings, bond through a shared love of disco dancing, go and see Alien together on its first release, and so on. She takes him to Los Angeles to meet her family (who are all surprisingly British – Vanessa Redgrave and especially Frances Barber make the most of their single scene), and so on. (However, and this is rather odd given that Gloria's affection for Julie Walters' character is crucial to the plot, we don't see their first meeting.) But then her suddenly-erratic behaviour leads to a breakup. Can her time with the Turners at least bring about some kind of reconciliation between them?
On paper this looks a little like one of those films about ostensibly ordinary people coming face to face with the magic and artifice of the movie business – I've heard it compared to My Week with Marilyn – filtered through the lens of it being a somewhat nostalgic period piece, looking back to the late 70s and early 80s (there is the predictably banging soundtrack of songs from the time, and some utterly horrid wallpaper). However, it never quite works this way, not least because Gloria Grahame is not really that well remembered as an actress nowadays – I couldn't have identified her from a picture, nor named any of her films, even the one she won an Oscar for (The Bad and the Beautiful, apparently), and my knowledge of old movies is not bad.
As a result, she almost becomes the stock figure of the Fading Movie Star rather than a recognisable person. This isn't necessarily a problem, because the story works just as well as a simple relationship drama – it's pushing it to call this a conventional romance – between two characters who are well-drawn and exceedingly well-played. Most of the attention seems to be going to Annette Bening, who is indeed very good (it's the kind of role which gets called 'unflattering' and wins the actress involved plaudits for 'bravery'), but Jamie Bell is equally effective in what's arguably a slightly more challenging role. As mentioned, the supporting cast is impressive, too.
It probably goes without saying that this is a very atypical Eon movie, with no exploding crocodiles or satellite death rays to be seen, and you do gradually realise that despite the cleverness of the production in working around and disguising the fact, this appears to be quite a low-budget movie. Could they have a future in this sort of thing? Well, maybe. (One suspects Eon may have used some of their clout to secure the use of footage from Alien, amongst a few other bits and pieces, which I'm guessing wouldn't usually come cheap.)
However, the question remains of what this film is actually, really, truly about. Gloria Grahame's former status as a movie star is rather peripheral to the plot, and it doesn't really seem to be making any specific point about this kind of age-gap relationship. The emphasis is always on the personal and the particular, rather than anything with universal resonance and applicability, with the result that the film always feels quite low-key and introspective. The fact that the arc of the story is essentially predictable from very early on is not really a positive, either.
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is a cleverly-made and well-constructed movie, driven by a gaggle of extremely good performances which may well attract attention during awards season next year. However, for all of its quality – and there are certainly some extremely moving moments in the course of the film – given the calibre of the stars involved, not to mention the pedigree of the Eon marque, it can't help feeling just a little bit small-time. Still, perhaps the start of a productive new direction for one of the great British movie companies, so you have to wish it well.