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Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool – Paul McGuigan ****



Film stars Don’t Die In Liverpool – Paul McGuigan ****

There is a brief scene late on in this film that lifts it above what had thus far been a simple touching and poignant if unlikely, age-gap romance between Oscar-winning Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and young scouse actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell). With a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh based on Turner’s book of the same name, their brief love affair found Grahame, starved of film work in Hollywood surviving on the Liverpool stage in a ‘star-vehicle’ version of Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie.

Grahame 56 in 1979 when they meet, rekindles passion along with career in a brief but tender cross-generation love affair with the likeable if emotionally naive Turner, then 27. With the very able restrained support of Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham as Turner’s parents, strong performances from the always reliable Bening and the increasingly assured Bell, negotiate as well as Greenhalgh’s screenplay will permit, the usual ‘edge-of-queasiness’ pitfalls of love scenes between protagonists with 30 years between them.

Although discreetly shot and played with a becoming modesty, the love scenes do reflect the simplistic clichés of cinematic treatment of age-gap sex. Grahame’s emotional history – 4 children from 4 different Hollywood husbands – probably justifies this resort to the prevailing popular assumption that any relationship between an older woman and younger man must inevitably be defined by sex and represent a woman’s doomed attempt to recover her youth by rekindling her sexual passion with a younger man who is of course in turn defined by the stamina and power of his sexual desire. What the later more nuanced conception in the film shows denies this frankly patronising stereotypical trope. Before that it is as if the only credible reason an older woman might be attracted to a younger man is because of his sexual prowess defined by performance. Thus we see Bening’s Gloria angered and undermined when Turner frankly refers to her age. How is this ‘hurt’ redeemed? Why of course by Turner grabbing her roughly under the sway of irresistible sexual desire. And to complete the cliché Grahame is both reassured and her quasi-youthful irresistible sexuality is re-validated. As I say this may be ‘true’ to Grahame; but then it sits ill with Bening, whose inherent class and maturity (as opposed to ‘age’) effortlessly suggests a more emotionally and sexually complex woman for whom a deeply satisfying sexual congress might just be the expression of a deeper, more nuanced, emotional relationship with a young man of unusual sensitivity and emotional character.

Must every woman who enters a relationship with a younger man be a cougar of popular vulgarity? Yes according to Hollywood. And a culture which uses sex to sell everything from lug-wrenches to kitchen rolls; and where young men are apparently using Viagra as a recreational drug to enhance performance – all making someone a hefty profit, suggests this might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cinematically it has long been the case that French directors make the best, nuanced, insightful, grown-up films about sex and sexuality: perhaps because they understand that sex is far too serious to be taken too seriously.

But finally, after these disappointingly clichéd early scenes, either Turner’s insight or simply Bening’s class, rescues us and the film. In an impressive coalescence of scene, actors and script; a superbly moving sequence transcends age to show us sensitivity, tenderness and the mutual generosity of deep feeling that finally transforms a romantic dalliance turned routine sexual affair, into a real mature love between grown-ups. Here the playing, especially by Bening, excels anything that went before and sets us up to feel genuinely moved by the subsequent tragic conclusion of the film and Grahame’s volatile emotional life, thereby fulfilling the ending presaged in the film’s title.

It is a profound irony that it is illness and mortality that eventually generates this emotional depth and total intimacy between Grahame and Turner. All we need now is a Director with the wisdom and insight to show us such courageous trust and intimacy as part of living our lives; not solely as solace and compassion to face ending them. Sex and sexuality shouts at us from every advert, web-site, book, TV. But genuine intimacy is as rare as hen’s teeth: never more so than in the cinematic portrayal of sexual relationships – where arguably it is most precious.

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