It must be said that British cinema did not promote itself especially well at this year’s London Film Festival. Don’t Worry About Me and Kicks failed to make any positive mark on the critics and audiences that turned out to see them; and while 44 Inch Chest and The Disappearance of Alice Creed boasted fantastic casts and gritty aesthetics, they were poorly written and suffered a similar fate.
Fortunately, festival organiser Sandra Hebron had one more card up her sleeve for the closing gala… Nowhere Boy. The film explores the teen years of one of the nation’s most beloved yet mysterious musical figures… John Lennon. The project has been developed by Ecosse (perhaps the most British production company around after a host of period dramas and adaptations of English romantic novels) and written by Matt Greenhalgh, an experienced television writer who recently wrote the critically acclaimed ‘Control’ (about another one of the nation’s most beloved musical figures, Ian Curtis). Finally, the film is directed by Sam Taylor Wood, a member of the Young British Artists, who was inspired to take the position by her late friend (and perhaps the most universally beloved British filmmaker of the modern era) Anthony Minghella. The result is an unusually British film that proves our national cinema can still match any bastion of filmmaking (from Hollywood to Paris) for quality, integrity, and passion.
Nowhere Boy deals with Lennon’s childhood, from the reunion with his prodigal mother to the advent of The Beatles. Lennon (Johnson) was constantly in trouble at school for bullying, playing truant, and reading ‘illicit’ magazines. He subsequently had a very strained relationship with his strict, positively Victorian Aunt and legal guardian, Mimi (Scott Thomas). His only friend through these years was his loving and free-spirited Uncle George (Threlfall); so when George dies of a heart attack, John decides it is time to seek out his mother.
Julia (Marie Duff) turns out to be a wild, fun-loving young woman, so when John gets suspended from school he hides the fact from Mimi and spends his days listening to ‘rock and roll’ and learning the guitar with his mother. Julia’s husband, Bobby, and Mimi eventually stamp out this brief glimpse of hope and happiness; and what follows is a destructive and passionate story of confused love, and the difficulties of forgiving people for things you have already forgotten.
John blames Julia for leaving him again, and escapes into the exciting new world of ‘rock and roll’ by founding The Quarrymen with his school friends. He meets Paul McCartney, who joins the band, and they begin to find success. But John’s heart is poisoned by the unanswered questions about why his own mother couldn’t raise him, and it is clear he cannot be happy until he understands his past.
After a cathartic and explosive argument, Mimi, Julia, and John seem ready to repair their broken family. But then a tragic accident wipes out yet another chance for John to find respite from his emotional torment. This is not dealt with in a morbid light, however, as John’s reaction to the situation proves how much he has grown as a man over the course of this short but important episode of his life. He doesn’t hide away or become needlessly destructive; he is mature and hopeful, and he directs his anguish into his songs. By the end of the film, John has moved out of Mimi’s home and is leaving for Hamburg with his “new band”. He promises to call Mimi when he arrives there, which he does… and he calls her every week for the rest of his extraordinary life.
The performances are predictably excellent. Anne Marie Duff was spectacular in Shameless, and she brings the same rough, dazzling beauty to Julia. David Threlfall is one of the most wonderful acting talents in Britain, and it is just a shame that his character has so little screen time. The finest performance by some margin, however, is that of Kristin Scott Thomas. She is powerful and alluring and yet delicate and easily hurt; it is a really extraordinary performance. Aaron Johnson also holds his own amongst some of the finest actors in Britain. At first he struggles to find Lennon’s unique accent, but eventually he picks it up. However talented an actor he is, however, there is no getting away from the fact that Johnson’s physiology is far too boisterous to capture the character of one of music’s most geeky-looking icons. There is no doubt that John Lennon could be a tremendous bully and a self-centred, stubborn man (this was evident throughout his life), and he was, of course, ruthlessly anti-establishment; but he did this in a quiet, clever, and subversive way, and it is difficult to align this with the brash, Brando-esque strut that Johnson brings to the character.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is how traditional the structure and aesthetic of the film are. When Steve McQueen made ‘Hunger’, it was obvious we were dealing with a piece of art, or political portraiture, rendered through the medium of commercial cinema. Taylor Wood could have brought a similar branding to this project, but ‘Nowhere Boy’ is a traditional film that just happens to be made by a first-time director who makes video-installation art in her day job. There are flashbacks to early-childhood which employ some interesting editing devices and unusual lighting, reminiscent of the legendary dream sequence in Bunuel’s ‘Los Olvidados’, but aside from that the film looks more like ‘Diner’ than ‘Performance’.
The script is beautifully written. The relationships between Mimi, Julia, and John are so beautifully crafted and natural. Aside from one sudden jump (when Mimi and Julia suddenly become friends so that the domestic situation can be resolved and Julia’s death feels even more tragic) the script is unwaveringly realistic and perfectly paced. There is really no need to have any strong feelings for John Lennon or The Beatles whatsoever to enjoy this film. Indeed, you are never especially conscious of the fact that this is supposed to be John Lennon. It is only when we meet Paul and George that we are reminded, and even then it is short-lived. This is not a biopic in the mould of ‘Walk The Line’ or ‘Ray’; it is the story of a troubled childhood and a determined and strong-minded young man who uses his love of music to overcome a bitter and uncomfortable domestic past.