A struggling young actor (Jamie Bell) strikes up a passionate May-December love affair with Gloria Grahame (Annette Benning), an Oscar-winning actress whom he meets in London as she begins work on a theatre play. Though happy at first, the relationship slowly deteriorates as Grahame's health wanes.
There's a lot about Film Star Don't Die In Liverpool that relies on the audience's ability to take Hollywood - particularly the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood - at its face value.
In other words, the film's success depends on whether one sees it as the glamourous and exciting world it portrayed itself as, and not as a churning machine that ground down people like Gloria Grahame - played here by Annette Benning - and fired them out the other side when they were done with them. The film itself even seems to have trouble with this concept, as it flicks between a sunny, carefree romance between Grahame and the somewhat naive Peter - played by Jamie Bell - and the "present" of the film, where she is slowly dying from cancer and living in a terraced house in rainy Liverpool. These conflicting narratives are woven together through production and set design; Bell opens a door in his parents house where he's tending to Benning, to reveal a memory of them standing on a beach or dancing through New York to some swirling soundtrack.
The relationship that develops between "Glo" and Peter is the centrepiece of the film, and thankfully there's real chemistry between Benning and Bell to pull it all off. Their first encounter sees the two of them dancing to disco music around her rundown London flat, followed by some flirting on each other's part that makes it easy to understand how the two fell for each other, despite their obvious age gap. The film doesn't make any bones about it either, and tackles it head-on in a number of key scenes throughout - one, in particular, involving Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber, as Benning's on-screen mother and sister respectively.
All while we're shown the romance blossoming, we see it disintegrating in the next scene and Benning's performance and range is commendable between both timelines. She's full of life, vibrant and happy, and then haggard and whispy in the next. Bell, meanwhile, channels some of that leftover innocence from Billy Elliot - particularly in the aforementioned disco scene - and manages to carry it through the film. The supporting cast, including Julie Walters as Bell's almost stereotypical Liverpudlian mother and an unusually reserved Kenneth Cranham as his father, help to ground the film in a firm setting.
While the film does have a sweetness and beauty to it all and the chemistry between Bell and Benning is so palpable, there is a sense that the film is trying to elicit emotional responses, so much so that it becomes almost manipulative. Sure, the story is real - Grahame really did live with Turner's parents in Liverpool for a period, as the film is based on his memoirs - but it nevertheless feels just a little bit too much like it's going for the easiest and most effective way to get you to cry. It works too, and you can fully expect there to be floods of tears by the time the credits roll, but when it's this obvious, should it be commended for it?
Still, Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool has a romantic flourish to it that's hard to deny and fans of Hollywood's golden age will enjoy the reverence with which director Paul McGuigan gives it.