Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. United Kingdom, 2017. Eon Productions, Synchronistic Pictures. Screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoir by Peter Turner. Cinematography by Urszula Pontikos. Produced by Barbara Broccoli, Colin Vaines. Music by J. Ralph. Production Design by Eve Stewart. Costume Design by Annie Crawford. Film Editing by Nick Emerson. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
While appearing on stage in 1981 Liverpool, actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) gets a call that faded screen queen Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) has collapsed during the run of a London play and needs him to come to her. Arriving at her hotel and finding her complaining of gas pain, Turner agrees to Grahame’s strange request that he take her back to his family home in Liverpool, where she appears to find a sense of comfort and care. The experience of sharing care of her with his mother (Julie Walters, Bell’s Billy Elliot co-star) provokes a series of potent flashbacks (complete with beautiful transitions) of when Turner first met Grahame three years earlier, when they lived in the same London rooming house where their earliest encounters lit a spark that quickly turned into a love affair. Unperturbed by either their vast age difference (Grahame was about 30 years older than him) and uninterested in her past marriages or scandals (including her having married her step-son), Turner finds both sexual attraction and genuine friendship with the former Oscar winner, a connection that director Paul McGuigan, working from Turner’s own memoir, treats with a great deal of affection and respect. Eventually the real, tragic reason for Grahame’s “gas pain” is made clear to Turner and, while the film gets slightly bogged down by a great deal of inactive sadness in its third act (people argue a lot about what to do and how they feel without actually doing much), the chemistry between the two leads goes from a very sexy first half to an incredibly touching conclusion. Despite having very little physical resemblance to the star she is playing, Bening does share Grahame’s eternal charm, both of them actors who maintain a delicious twinkle that does not diminish with the physical signs of age, and is as captivating when she is playing Grahame’s touchy insecurities (she gets angry when it is suggested that she might be too old to play Juliet at 56) as she is in portraying the harshness of her last days when Grahame fights so hard to not acknowledge either her pain or her fear. Bell is no slouch as co-star, a combination of virile sexiness and intelligent charm that does justice to what appears to be Turner’s undying loyalty to Grahame and his own feelings for her. It’s a very sad film that is also a great tribute to real love; just watching the two of them brighten in each other’s company is enough to make a hopeless romantic out of even the most cynical viewer.