Gloria Grahame’s Hollywood sheen might have dulled in the later years of her illustrious film career, but it’s enjoying a (partly cloudy) new day in the sun thanks to performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool‘, which landed decent reviews at Telluride as the awards-positioning festival kicked off Friday.
The Paul McGuigan-directed biographical romance sees Bening channeling the late Oscar winner during a period of romantic bliss, tracing the early stages of her courtship with Peter Turner (Bell), whose memoir of the same name serves as the basis for Matt Greenhalgh’s script, through the last phases of Grahame’s life after a grim cancer diagnosis cut her life short in 1981 at the age of 57.
“There is a tremendous warmth and tenderness to this sweet, sad love story starring Annette Bening and Jamie Bell,” Peter Bradshaw, enjoying the film a bit more than most of his colleagues, writes in his four-star review for The Guardian. “Director Paul McGuigan finds the balance between pathos and humour… There is a great spark between Bell and Bening, and I think these are the most relaxed performances I have seen from either of them.”
He continues: “Bening is excellent as Grahame: imperious, vulnerable, romantic, sexually excited about her younger man, wanly aware of secrets she cannot share with him. She is not so much a Norma Desmond figure, staying big while the movies got small; she is closer to someone her mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) compares her to: Marilyn Monroe, an actor having to stay tough while life and showbusiness give her the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”
“Bening is luminous as usual and captures the essence of someone who had experienced the highs of the film industry only to find herself struggling to keep relevant and working,” Deadline‘s Pete Hammond praises. “Bening could — and should — be in line for a fifth Oscar nomination but I said that last year for her equally brilliant work in 20th Century Women for which she was overlooked. Bell is every bit her equal in his best screen turn since Billy Elliot, the film that launched his career in 2000.”
While the film itself has also been compared to the 2011 drama My Week with Marilyn (not always as a compliment, either), and the somewhat divided reception out of the gate seems to suggest the film might only be a player for the fruit of its stars’ labor, Bening’s turn in the lead role has drawn particularly warm — if not as overwhelmingly positive as is required to lead the Best Actress at such an early stage — praise from Telluride attendees.
“The two leading performances deserve to generate Oscar buzz. Bening does not make an effort to imitate Grahame’s distinctive pout or drawl, but she captures the spirit of the complicated actress with remarkable subtlety and flair. We never doubt Grahame’s ability to mesmerize a much younger man, and Bening revels in all of Grahame’s complexities,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stephen Farber writes. “Bell has done a lot of solid work since his breakout role in Billy Elliott, but this is definitely his most memorable performance since then.”
Bell, who drew perhaps more enthusiastic reviews than Bening, could also break out as a contender in the Supporting Actor race, with his portrayal of Turner being hailed as the tonal yin to his costar’s yang, one of two powerful central elements in an otherwise standard film.
“Annette Bening is fantastic in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool…Jamie Bell might be better,” Gregory Ellwood tweeted after Friday night’s screening, while IndieWire’s David Ehrlich noted the film is a “surface-level” production, though Bell’s performance is what ultimately “sells it.”
“There are a couple of elements that might have been more thoughtfully explored,” Farber continues. “We never quite learn how or when Grahame developed such an attachment to Turner’s family, and a brief reference to Peter’s bisexuality doesn’t lead anywhere. But despite a few quibbles that viewers may have, there is no denying the emotional force that this film develops, and for that, we can credit talented filmmakers and two stars working at the height of their powers.”
While Grahame scored an Academy Award for her performance in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Bening has yet to bag an Oscar statuette despite landing four nominations since 1991. That could change this year, given the film’s similarities to 2014’s Still Alice, which Sony Pictures Classics also unveiled late in its respective year of release after festival stops at Toronto and AFI, which likely culminated in a legacy victory for Julianne Moore; the screen vet ultimately won Best Actress for her work in the film after receiving four prior nominations.
Film Stars eyes an awards run from a more prestigious post, however, with a Telluride launch preceding festival showings in Toronto and London later this year, and a December release date on deck. With strong competition from Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Meryl Streep (The Post), Kate Winslet (Wonder Wheel), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), Claire Foy (Breathe), and Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) also in the hunt, the film overall will need to track better with critics at those festivals than it did at Telluride if it wants to land nominations for anything other than its leading duo in the race ahead.