When Gloria met Peter

Film Stars

ROMEO and Juliet: Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) and Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) embrace their love, their lives and the Bard. Photograph courtesy http://www.austinchronicle.com

IT’S A GREAT rarity for a child actor who wows his audience to go away and come back to the industry all grown up and wow some more. This is exactly what you get in Paul McGuigan’s film Film stars don’t die in Liverpool, which features Jamie Bell as Peter Turner. This unique love story which is based on the true story of American film actress Gloria Grahame (1923-1981), penned by Turner himself, is the kind of film that will give you hope for the future of this society – and its filmmaking culture – it’s elegant and beautifully constructed with strong messages and gritty performances. And like any other love story, it’s about giving with a full heart and letting go, but there are so many delicate edges to it, you will want to watch this film over and over again. Forever.

Seventeen years ago, Jamie Bell was the child who defined Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott (2000), a story about a Northern England boy, the son of a miner in the riotous 1980s who wanted to do ballet. Today, he’s an adult, but the maverick fire in his belly and his ability to embrace complex social issues is as refined and beautiful now as they were then.

Again, we’re in the 1980s, with all its dance moves and analogue culture, in this wild romance. And the girl in the love story? It’s none other than Annette Bening, who is magnificent as a Grahame in her fifties. The love is passionate and unconventional, and Peter’s mum is played by the inimitable Julie Walters. Indeed, with Vanessa Redgrave playing Grahame’s mother, this film offers a full house of fabulous actresses over 60 and it celebrates them in ways that make you value the elderly in your own community.

But more than all of this, Film stars don’t die in Liverpool offers the kind of perfection that very few films can. Featuring a mature understanding of silence and wall paper patterns, of subtlety and finesse, along the lines of Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, which remains arguably one of the finest Holocaust films ever; it’s about exploring your lover’s body and finding truths which she can never tell you. It’s about what happens when marriage doesn’t seal your love, giving your lover’s relatives priority over you when it comes to death.

You know how this film will end by the very virtue of its title, but the predictability of the work is not the point. This is a film that embraces the brevity of life with fierceness and verve. It heightens the bar for the possibility of telling a story of this nature, enormously. It’s a film that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back into the glamour and magic of 1950s Hollywood, with all its illusions of sincerity, its stars and its unbroken dreams.

  • Film stars don’t die in Liverpool is directed by Paul McGuigan and is performed by Lee Adach, Anna Afferr, Tim Ahern, Lasco Atkinds, Rick Bacon, Frances Barber, Joey Batey, Roy Beck, Gintare Beinoraviciute, Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Suzanne Bertish, Leanne Best, Michael Billington, James Bloor, Edward Bourne, Mark Braithwaite, Michael Brand, Tom Brittney, Joanna Brookes, Jade Clarke, Kenneth Cranham, Paul Dallison, David Decio, Stephanie Eccles, Karl Farrer, Helen Iesha Goldthorpe, Vaslov Goom, Stephen Graham, Leon Grant, Leila Gwynne, Alan Wyn Hughes, Alex Jaep, Bentley Kalu, John Kinory, Isabella Laughland, Adam Lazarus, Ify Mbaeliachi , Gemma Oaten, Luana Di Pasquale, Gino Picciano, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Redshaw, David Soffe, Alexandra Starkey, Asmeret Tesfagiorgis, Glynn Turner, Peter Turner, Jay Villiers, Julie Walters, Nicola-Jayne Wells, Susan Westbury, Patricia Winker and Charlotte Worwood. It is written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the eponymous memoir by Peter Turner. Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Colin Vaines, it features creative input by J. Ralph (music), Urszula Pontikos (cinematography), Nick Emerson (editing), Debbie McWilliams (casting), Jany Temime (costumes) and Eve Stewart (production). Release date: March 22 2018.
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Too much pretty in Boychoir

Garrett Wareing is Stet Tate, leading the National Boychoir, in the eponymous film. Photograph by Myles Aronowitz

Garrett Wareing is Stet Tate, leading the National Boychoir, in the eponymous film. Photograph by Myles Aronowitz

It’s odd to think that a director could get some parts of a film so right, but enable an ending for a film that so profoundly negates all its explored values in one foul swoop. While François Girard’s Boychoir probes the preciously transient phenomenon of the soprano boys’ choir, an institution virtually as old as European church music itself, he successfully ramps up the crassly sentimental and harshly formulaic construction, filtering it through with a thick and morally troubling vein of money that even its sterling adult cast, headed by Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard and Kathy Bates cannot save.

The story of a pre-pubescent boy afflicted by the vagaries of a single parent with her own problems, but one equipped with a talent that can take him out of the murk of it all, Boychoir is predictable, even if it has an insultingly ostensible fairytale ending. But it is the music that will generally make your heart sing, and is the central draw-card of this work.

The film begs comparison with the 2000 British dance film Billy Elliot directed by Stephen Daldry, which takes apart how the fragile thread of talent can grow into real life if nurtured and plucked and whittled appropriately. Unlike the latter, which opens up issues ranging from sexual awareness to economic balance, Boychoir remains monolithic in its storytelling. This is a pity. Clearly armed with the kind of seed money that gives it access to beautiful settings, the use of Karl Jenkins’s work and other fine elements, the story itself plods, which severely challenges the overall result.

But further to that, there’s the lack of a master’s directorial touch. Crowd scenes are always an interesting opportunity for the construction of texture; films such as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose or Peter Mullan’s (2002) The Magdalene Sisters as well as Aisling Walsh’s (2003) Song for a Raggy Boy – to say nothing of Miloš Forman’s (1975) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all present a coagulation of humanity in a context and the bringing together unusual looking people as well as the uniformly pretty ones, lends the comments the film offers nuance, intelligent and crepuscular insights and sheer brilliance. This doesn’t happen in Boychoir. While Garrett Wareing stands out with his sultry pout and long fringe, in his role as the central character, Stet, the rest blend into blandness.

It’s a strange turning around of values: constructed in the contemporary world filled as it is with the immediate internet and social-media access to everything, something of the quest for perfection, of the time taken to craft something as perfectly as possible is lost, and the film, while articulating some beautiful caveats about the preciousness of time, becomes a hum-drum affair.

  • Boychoir (2014) is directed by François Girard and features music direction by Brian Byrne and cinematography by David Franco. Its cast includes Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard, Garrett Wareing and Joe West, amongst others.

Tasting Michaela’s fierce hunger for life in her tale of dance, chance and hope

HopeIt’s not every day that you come across a life story as shattering and empowering as that of classical ballerina Michaela DePrince. It’s also not every day that you encounter a first person narrative told with such unabashed freshness that leaves you with goosebumps on every page. On several occasions the words might swim in tears as you read; ultimately you emerge with a taste of the deep hunger this fantastic young dancer has nurtured, not necessarily for dance, but for reaching for her best. It might sound like I’m about to burst into clichéd song, but this book averts corny Disneyishness in its blatant and direct embrace of the notion of hope.

Michaela DePrince, born Mabinty Bagura in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s had a one-in-a-million chance of a life; in the retelling of it, she is frank and bold and the material is readable and moving for young readers and old ones. More than anything, her tale is about the hardy stuff of which a toddler’s dreams are made.

Witness to the horror of losing her adored parents during the violent uprisings in her country of birth, DePrince was a tender three-and-a-half year old with a nascent lust for life and a passion for languages when everything that she knew and cherished was brutally broken. She was put in the care of an uncle who made his negative opinion of her cruelly blatant. She was shifted to an orphanage where she was mooted “Number Twenty Seven” which she later understood as a means of reflecting the establishment’s least favourite child.

Traumatised by loss, broken by neglect and the witnessing of horror, to add to her agony, DePrince was born with the condition of vitiligo which manifests in uneven pigmentation: this complicated the stigmas she faced in her own society. A chance encounter with a bit of rubbish in a windstorm gave voice to the child’s big dreams: when the wind blew a 1979 magazine cover bearing the image of a western classical ballerina into the tiny Mabinty’s awareness. She had never encountered anything like this and the dream was cast, prompted by mystery and fuelled by her inner engine, which kept her emotionally afloat amid real horror.

During that year, she, together with other children from the Sierra Leone orphanage, was adopted by an American family who raised them and enabled DePrince’s dreams to reach astonishing fruition. Much more than a litany of dance achievements, however, this book is a modest and clearly written one which leads you to laugh and cry and be astonished at the challenges that this young woman faced, head on. There might be a little too much in-house dance information as DePrince describes her adolescent years and her engagement with ballet schools and professional dance companies, if you’re not a dance enthusiast; but her emphasis on the problematics of what is recognised as the medium’s most unforgiving genre, ballet, is spot on. She pummels the confrontation between technique and emotion as she will open your eyes and head to the realities of racism within the genre.

You may have seen her perform with Mzansi Ballet in Johannesburg a few years ago, when she was an invited guest, and you may look at the structure and preciousness of this tale through the same kind of tears evoked in the north-east English 2000 drama Billy Elliot by Stephen Daldry, where the baby dancer with a heart on fire for something he can’t quite articulate grows into an irrepressible force of pure art. Inevitably, though, what you take away from this writing crafted with an endearing sense of directness is that dreams do come true.

This is the kind of book that should be on the shelf of any child. And any teacher. And any dancer or artist. It’s not a simple rag to riches yarn: there are lots of tears and twisty paths along the way, but it is a glowing tribute to the child herself and the people who raised her and allowed her to soar without clipping her wings.

Hope in a Ballet Shoe: Orphaned by war, saved by ballet by Michaela and Elaine DePrince (Faber and Faber, London 2014). This book is distributed by Jonathan Ball in South Africa.