“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is worth seeing as further proof that Annette Bening can do anything and for a touchingly flummoxed performance by Jamie Bell, once the kid of “Billy Elliot” and now a strapping romantic lead. But if it sends audiences back to explore the filmography of Gloria Grahame, the movie will have truly provided a public service.
Grahame was a Hollywood star of the 1940s and ’50s, often a film noir tootsie, usually the least proper person in the room. You know her as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” or the neighborhood bad girl in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or maybe, if you’re lucky, as the worried girlfriend to rageaholic Hollywood screenwriter Humphrey Bogart -- the actor’s single best performance -- in Nick Ray’s prescient “In a Lonely Place” (1950).
Grahame had a kittenish voice and a flirty manner, and the shock of seeing her played by Bening is how uncannily well the actress captures the star. Generally a headstrong performer, Bening conveys Grahame’s indolence and insecurity, the playful lust that could seem like either a promise or a threat. Above all, she captures a woman who never could quite stop acting, which must be an interesting avenue to explore if you yourself are a talented movie star (married to an iconic movie star, no less).
Directed by Paul McGuigan from a script based on Peter Turner’s memoir, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” is about how, title notwithstanding, Grahame came to Liverpool in 1981, in her late 50s, not so much to die but to see if she could hide from death. A few years earlier, she had had an affair with the 20-something Turner, a struggling London actor; now, clearly suffering from an illness that appears to be terminal, Grahame just wants to hole up in Turner’s family home up north.
The performances are empathetic and delightful, with the eternal Julie Walters especially good as Peter’s dowdy mum, secretly delighted with the demi-goddess upstairs but growing more grave and concerned as events proceed. McGuigan (“Wicker Park,” “Victor Frankenstein”) arranges the furniture well and moves everyone smoothly through their paces. There’s nothing much wrong with “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” other than that it’s about a situation rather than a story. The situation is: A movie star is still a movie star even when she’s your girlfriend.
To provide an illusion of forward momentum, the film alternates between the initial late-’70s romance between Grahame and Turner and the darkening days in 1981, when Peter’s family urges him to overrule her wishes and seek medical help. Individual scenes twinkle and bite: the first meeting, when the two actor-neighbors dance together in her apartment and the wallpaper just about catches fire; a grim dinner in Los Angeles with Grahame’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and sister (Frances Barber), in which some of the star’s real-life demons are laid gently on the table.
If the movie meanders, it’s refreshing to see a May-September romance in which May is played by the man for once and where the sex is happy, frank, and frequent. On the other hand, “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” only grazes against the real Grahame’s sometimes unseemly predilection for very young men. (She had an affair with the teenaged son of director-husband Ray and later married the boy.) There was damage there, but this movie insists that most of it was self-inflicted. That may even be true.
As a meditation on acting as a way of life — or perhaps an escape from life — “Film Stars” raises some good questions while lacking rigor. A crucial lover’s argument is played twice, once from Turner’s confused point of view and then from Grahame’s, the latter scene weightier with tragic knowledge and one more chance for Gloria to put on a show. Was Grahame a misunderstood martyr or her own worst enemy? The movie says both, but from indecision rather than ambiguity
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Matt Greenhaigh, based on a memoir by Peter Turner. Starring Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Julie Walters. At Kendall Square. 106 minutes. R (language, some sexual content, brief nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.