Gloria Grahame, sultry star of Crossfire and The Bad and the Beautiful, died of breast cancer in New York in 1981. She had spent her final days in Liverpool, at the house of former lover Peter Turner and his family. Turner later wrote of his relationship with Grahame in his memoir, which Matt Greenhalgh has adapted into a strangely hollow but ultimately moving feature.

The film opens with Grahame (Annette Bening) collapsing just before curtain call for a production of The Glass Menagerie at a Liverpool theatre. She declines medical attention and insists on convalescing with the Turners. She tells Peter (Jamie Bell) that it’s just indigestion; we do not yet know the nature of her illness, but it’s clear that it’s more than just gas.

Gloria’s reappearance causes Peter to reminisce about their time together. Director Paul McGuigan (whose varied filmography includes psychological thriller Wicker Park and genre curio Victor Frankenstein) carries us between his film’s present and its past, but not with cuts or fades. Instead, a camera panning across a room will pull us back in time; or Peter will walk out of a room in dreary Liverpool and into sunny Los Angeles.

These are stylistic flourishes in what is otherwise a rather pedestrian, restrained affair. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool plays out, for the most part, like a kitchen sink drama with allusions to Hollywood glamour. Think Lauren Bacall walking into a Mike Leigh film. Bening and Bell have great chemistry and give these roles their all; but despite the skilled performances, much of the film is flat and unengaging.

The problem, I think, is that Gloria and Peter are presented to us (at least at first, but more on that later) as inherently unsympathetic. Gloria seems to be nothing but an ageing, washed up former starlet desperate for a boy toy to make her feel young again. Peter is starstruck and naive, the kind of young man to cry love at the merest flutter of his pulse. When the fling is flung, when the relationship crashes to its end, it’s difficult to muster any compassion.

But then McGuigan pulls a fast one on us, tips his hand, performs the old switcheroo. He replays one of Peter’s reminiscences, but this time from Gloria’s perspective. Suddenly, what had seemed a standard inevitable break up becomes a woman’s struggle to prevent a devastating illness hurting those she loves. The film reveals its emotional core, terrible and beautiful. A gently poignant scene surrounds a sorrowful reading of Romeo and Juliet. When Gloria is taken back to the States by her family, we are left to share Peter’s despair in a silence broken only by the sounds of his weeping.

It’s difficult to tell if this is a big or a feature. Has McGuigan purposefully restrained himself in order to better deliver his knockout emotional punch? Or is this simply a hollow telling of a true romance saved by a heartbreaking pay off? Whatever the case may be, the result is the same. It might take its time getting there, but when it does Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is certainly worth it.

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