Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Susie Allnutt/Sony Pictures Classics)

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool could not ask for better performances from its stars. Annette Bening brings worldly sexiness, vulnerability, and tart humor to her role as dying, faded American movie star Gloria Grahame. As her younger British lover and protégé, Jamie Bell projects wide-eyed, loose-limbed energy and the best kind of masculine protectiveness.  Based on the 1986 memoir by Peter Turner, the movie’s weepy story lingers in the memory longer than it might thanks to the two leads and their easy chemistry.

At its start, the movie cheerily revels in nostalgia for Liverpool in the late 1970s, a workaday stronghold of narrow row houses and wallpaper with patterns that bloom like e. coli under an electron microscope. Aspiring actor Turner (Bell) meets fading movie star Grahame (Bening), who is renting a room in his mother’s house for the run of a play. Considerably older than he, she still exudes energy and sex appeal. He’s impressed by her brash, easy manner and her anecdotes of old Hollywood, and the two enjoy impromptu dancing, exploring the town, and eventually falling into bed. When Turner follows Grahame to Hollywood and New York, the film glows with the excitement that takes place when an older person generously opens up the world to someone younger.

All is not hunky-dory, though. As befits a former movie star, Grahame has an ego and a temper—she snaps at any reference to her age. She also has a secret compelling her to imperiously banish Paul from her New York apartment and back home to Britain. After a long period of estrangement between the two, a transatlantic phone call brings a stunning sad revelation: Gloria is dying of cancer and wants to live out her remaining days in Paul’s mother’s house in Liverpool. Who could say no?

Although the film has been made with love, it overemphasizes its main character’s incensed denial about undeniable facts (age, death) too many times, and the giving over of the rest of the film to Grahame’s illness heightens the overkill, especially since she does not go gently into the good night. Her slow, agonizing demise disrupts the lives of Paul’s parents, played by Julie Wilson and Kenneth Cranham, doughty working-class types whom the script uncomfortably pushes to the verge of caricature. It’s debatable whether the care of Grahame should have fallen to the family in the first place, but it’s clear that caring for her has worn them out—it’s a relief for the Turners, and for us, when she finally consents to go the hospital. Yet vibrant memories of an unlikely love story remain, rescuing the film with their charm.

Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book by Peter Turner
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
UK. 106 min. Rated R
With Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, Kenneth Cranham, Julie Walters, Frances Barber, and Vanessa Redgrave