The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

People like to point out how Annette Bening has never won an Oscar, despite being nominated four times. Specifically, the fact that she was one of two front-runners on a couple occasions is often mentioned. Each time she gets a juicy new role, the buzz about whether this will “be her year” starts. All of this overlooks the most important issue, which is that, Oscar or not, Bening is one of the most consistently interesting actresses working today. She portrays a wide range of characters, with no two performances ever the same. Awards are nice; having a dazzling resume is nicer. The actress adds another winner to hers with Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

Based on a true story, the movie casts her as legendary Hollywood icon Gloria Grahame. When we meet her, Gloria's big-screen career has long since dried up. She still does plenty of stage work, including travelling to England for a play. She rents a room and soon after meets another tenant, Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), a twenty-something who is an aspiring actor in his own right. Peter is captivated by the veteran star. Gloria is playful by nature. They engage in some harmless flirting, then fall into a serious relationship. Several things threaten to impede it – the age difference, Peter's skeptical family, and a serious medical problem Gloria is keeping secret.

Calling Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool a May/December romance feels like a bit of a cheat. This isn't a story about an older woman dating a younger man, although that certainly happens. If anything, it's about how two people can be on the same wavelength and different wavelengths simultaneously.

The connection between Gloria and Peter, for example, is quite real. On one of their first meetings, they re-enact dance moves from Saturday Night Fever in her apartment. It's a wonderful moment because it shows their commonality. Both are natural-born performers. Both have an uninhibited side. As the movie progresses, we see how these shared qualities bring them together in ways they do not expect.

At the same time, they're also very different. Gloria is nearing the end of her career, while Peter is just embarking on his. He has his entire life ahead of him, but she's staring old age and illness in the face. Knowing that she's advancing in age, Gloria isn't making any long-term plans. Peter, on the other hand, is reaching the point of thinking about finding something solid on which to build a future.

Director Paul McGuigan (whose previous credits include the less-than-impressive Victor Frankenstein, Lucky Number Slevin, and Push) deftly weaves back and forth between different time frames to show the state of the central couple's relationship at various points. It's almost like an even more arthouse-y version of the already arthouse (500) Days of Summer. The approach works, emphasizing the tug-of-war between their similarities and differences.

Bening is excellent as Gloria, expertly conveying not only the woman's effervescent personality, but also how she uses that same quality to hide the darker truths about her situation. Where stardom once made her the toast of the town, she now seeks out crumbs of celebrity wherever she can find them. Bell is every bit his co-star's equal. Aside from credibly busting out some Travolta-esque dance moves, he makes it convincing that Peter is attracted to Gloria in a way that's as emotional as it is physical. Both actors work well together, creating a credible bond between their characters that gives events in the last act real weight.

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool could have gone even deeper than it does. The reaction of Peter's family to his lover, to give one example, is handled at a surface level. (They're starstruck, but concerned.) More could have been done to show how Gloria reflects on her now-faded career, as well. Regardless of those flaws, Bening and Bell sell the material, creating an unlikely partnership that earns your compassion.

( out of four)

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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