Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sam Taylor Wood
Stars: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne Marie Duff, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ian Bell, David Morrissey.
John Lennon has always been the most interesting and controversial of the four Beatles, whether it be for his musical genius, his anti-authority stance, his bizarre relationship with Yoko Ono, or his tragic assassination in 1980. He was also, arguably, the better songwriter, who shaped the direction of the legendary group. His painful experiences and troubled childhood growing up in Liverpool in the 1950’s informed much of his music and lyrics.
This wonderful biopic of Lennon’s early years offers a portrait of the artist as an angry young man and it also captures the excitement accompanying the birth of rock and roll. Nowhere Boy is based on the memoir written by his half-sister Julie Baird, which has been perceptively adapted for the screen by Matt Greenhaigh (who wrote the Joy Division biopic Control). There have been numerous documentaries about the birth of the Beatles, but this is a revealing and occasionally moving insight into the early life and influences of Lennon, the spiritual leader of the Beatles.
Set in Liverpool in the 1950’s, the film looks in detail at his troubled teen years and his unconventional upbringing. “You’re going nowhere,” the principal of his school informs the rebellious John. From the age of five was raised by his imperious and conservative aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) after his mother abandoned him. After the death of his uncle, John reconnects with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), a free spirited and unstable soul, whom he discovers is only living a few streets away. Although married with a young family of her own, Julia spends time with John.
She kindles his interest in music, and before long John is forming his own band, which he names The Quarrymen. Most of his band members can’t play, and they are soon discarded as John finds real musicians like a very young Paul McCartney (played appealingly by Thomas Brodie Sangster), who helps Lennon provide much needed direction and structure to his poetry. The film subtly introduces the differences in their characters, captures the rivalry between the pair, and also hints at the tension that would later rip apart their band The Beatles. The film ends with John heading off for Hamburg, with fellow musicians Paul McCartney and George Harrison in tow, as his plaintive song Mother plays on the soundtrack. The rest, as they say, is history.
A revealing and intimate portrait, Nowhere Boy is the assured debut film from performance artist Sam Taylor Wood, and she does a good job of capturing the contradictory nature of Lennon’s character. She also ensures that this emotionally charged drama does not veer too far in into melodrama territory.
Aaron Johnson, who previously appeared in the Australian coming of age tale Angus Thongs And Perfect Snogging, is well cast as Lennon. With his onion glasses and lick of hair he manages to create a resemblance to the singer. He also captures his rebellious attitude, his arrogance, and swagger. Scott-Thomas anchors the film with her wonderful performance as the cold, emotionally stunted and steely Mimi. Newcomer Duff is also excellent and brings a vitality to her role that perfectly captures the carefree abandon of the tragic and doomed Julia.
Great attention has been paid to getting the period detail right, and the film beautifully captures the look and feel of post-WWII Liverpool, a depressing working class city.