Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy

***

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Everyone comes of age some time (if they do not die trying), but the rites of passage acquire a special kind of two-way trajectory when the future adult is better known than the present adolescent. Nowhere Boy might tell of an angry young man's attempts to carve out an identity for himself from the broken pieces of his childhood in Fifties Liverpool, but knowing that the rebellious teenager is one John Lennon brings with it the weight of (future) history. This is a legend about the making of a legend.

The Beatles may never be so much as name-checked in Sam Taylor-Wood's feature debut, but the film still echoes with the sound of its protagonist's life to come. The soundtrack opens with the instantly recognisable guitar twang from A Hard Day's Night, significant landmarks in the Fab Four's future (like Strawberry Fields and the Cavern Club) loom large in the background, a doodled walrus can be spotted in the schoolboy's exercise book, and even the title is junior version of Nowhere Man.


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And while the film may focus on Lennon's fraught relationship with adoptive aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and long-lost mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) – the one staid, stuffy, but stable, the other wild, passionate, but unhinged – along the way Lennon is also of course discovering rock and roll, learning to play harmonica and guitar, forming his first skiffle band, and meeting talented younger musicians by the names of Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell). In other words, even if the film stops short of showing Lennon's adult achievement of international superstardom, preferring instead to depict the teenage domestic dramas that shaped him, we are constantly being reminded that this boy is, in fact, very much going somewhere.

Directed by a Turner Prize nominee whose debut short Love You More was screened in the main competition at Cannes, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, whose first feature screenplay Control amply demonstrated his way with troubled Northern musicians, and concerned with one of Liverpool's most celebrated (and divisive) sons, Nowhere Boy is in all kinds of ways a film full of potential. Unfortunately, however, the final product is altogether too conventional to provoke in viewers anything like the cinematic equivalent of hysterical squealing in the concert-hall's or stadium's aisles.

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Let's be clear here. Nowhere Boy is certainly a highly accomplished piece of period film-making. Aaron Johnson nails the lippy charm and edgy volatility of his character, and though he is neither a deadringer for Lennon nor a slavish mimic of his mannerisms, there are uncanny moments in the film where you forget you are watching an actor at all, and can imagine you are seeing the genuine article reincarnated. With just the subtlest glint in her eye, Scott Thomas transforms the shrewish Mimi into a more rounded, complex woman, while Duff sensitively underplays Julia's mania, turning it into a lively (and eroticised) childishness whose great appeal to Lennon is never anything less than plausible.

And yet, and yet. There is something a bit bland, a bit kitchen sink, a bit telemovie, about this portrait of the artist as a young man. Viewers aware of who Lennon would become (and that, surely, is most viewers) will already be familiar with his troubled childhood and unresolved feelings, as celebrated in the later songs Julia and Mother - while the odd viewer who is somehow oblivious to Lennon's identity and future might well wonder what this (admittedly good looking) soap opera is doing on the big screen. If only Nowhere Boy were a little stranger, a little more strikingly stylised and surreal, then it might, as Lennon eventually did, have broken free of its suburban drabness. Still, it is an assured calling card from Sam Taylor-Wood, and (let's hope) a sign of a great future in cinema.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2009
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Biopic of John Lennon's younger years.
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Director: Sam Taylor-Wood

Writer: Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book by Julia Baird

Starring: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Brodie Sangster, David Morrissey, David Threlfall, Josh Bolt, Andrew Buchan

Year: 2009

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: UK


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