The Plot: Liverpool, 1978. What starts as a vibrant affair between a legendary femme fatale, the eccentric Academy Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (Bening), and her young lover, British actor Peter Turner (Bell), quickly grows into a deeper relationship, with Turner being the person Gloria turns to for comfort. Their passion and lust for life is tested to the limits by events beyond their control (Disc sleeve).
One-time Oscar winner Grahame had some hits and worked with some big stars, but her personal life was more than a little complicated, and undoubtedly affected her career trajectory. Three husbands and three children in, and her relationship and eventual fourth marriage to her own teen stepson was potentially a trigger-point towards a downward spiral that involved messy custody battles, a career downturn, media disrepute and a nervous breakdown. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool barely hints at any of that, instead looking past it at the tail-end of Grahame's life, pushing 60 and finding it hard to accept getting old, working on a stage play in the UK and falling for a young boy whose own acting career has barely started.
Director Paul McGuigan cuts right to the end with his tragic love story, itself based on the memoirs of the real Peter Turner, the young man who fell in love with the visiting Hollywood star, and flashes back to how they met and the time they spent together, briefly addressing the age gap and her slightly concerning predisposition towards young boys, but mostly just playing lip service to anything beyond their burgeoning, rose-tinted, fairytale. The narrative doesn't even bother digging into the clearly damaged woman at its core, instead relying on stars Bening and Bell - both at the top of their game - to smooth over the gaps and conceal the shallowness of the whole affair. It's a shame really, because there's far more to this story, but we just get to read the back cover (AVForums).
The video: Detail is generally very good indeed, providing keen coverage of the lead stars, complete with all their lines and wrinkles. It's quite refreshing to see such a visually raw portrait from an actress like Bening, with and without the glamour of a heavy layer of makeup and the camera seldom shies away from observing the finer details and textures, eschewing traditional soft focus used in these kinds of features in favour of a far more natural looking affair, clean and digitally pristine. 70s Liverpool is also lovingly reproduced, complete with the kind of vibrant colour scheme that most locals would likely find completely at odds with the seaside locale. Bright blues skies, lush greens and warm healthy tones abound, whilst the budgetary restrictions struggle to afford the same to Malibu, instead adopting some really quite poor rear-screen projection that high definition only further highlights is a big sham. It's a very good, technically proficient video presentation, rich and lavish right through to the spotlight-ridden stages, or the stunning beachfront vistas, and the few instances of banding and crush are arguably not enough to devalue its largely demo worth (4.5).
The audio: The accompanying DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also a loving ode to the era, brimming with some great tracks, including an opening Elton John offering which cleverly drifts from diagetic to non-diagetic in a rare show of impressive style. Dialogue gets keen presentation across the array, dominating the frontal channel, taking in the commendable accents affected by the majority of the cast. Effects remain nominally restricted to atmospheric buzz, from the heaving bars and cheering crowds; the bustling streets and crashing waves of the ocean. There are a couple of fantastic tracks used to great effect, dominating scenes of dancing or despair, and giving the film that much-needed added passion which defines the tone of the narrative (4.5).