The View From Here

First Look - John Lennon, Nowhere Boy

Michael Bonner

It perhaps says much about John Lennon – the callow 16-year old version, that is – that he’s really only a supporting character in his own biopic. This Lennon has yet to develop into the sardonic, quick-witted Beatle we know from interviews and newsreel footage. He’s not even quite the Lennon we saw in Ian Softley’s Backbeat, despite the events of that film taking place soon after Nowhere Boy finishes.

The Lennon we get here is still half-boy – caught by director Sam Taylor Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh as he morphs from cheeky pupil at Liverpool’s Quarry Bank High School into lairy rock’n’roller. In this respect, Lennon here is potentially indistinguishable from a thousand other teenage lads – intent on getting drunk, getting laid and playing in a band. And – although we see both the formation of the Quarrymen and The Beatles’ departure for Hamburg – there are no prophetic flourishes here. Even Lennon’s initial meeting with Paul McCartney is admirably underplayed.

In fact, this feels less like the story of the young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) and more a study of two remarkably different women and the considerable influence they wield over him. These are his mother, Julia (Ann-Marie Duff), a reckless free spirit who relinquished control over her son when he was five, when he was subsequently raised by his aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas), for whom the way forward is a genteel, middle-class upbringing. As Lennon grows into rebellious adulthood, he rekindles his relationship with his mother – a potentially disastrous move on his part. Julia is, frankly, all over the shop – flirtatious, erratic and irresponsible – leaving Lennon equally besotted and confused by her behaviour.

Certainly, of course, with the benefit of history we can see that without Julia’s influence we arguably wouldn’t have had The Beatles – and, by extension, the cultural history of the last 45 plus years. She may turn him onto rock’n’roll – and the world thanks her for that – but she’s a troublesome (and troubled) presence in his life. It’s to Greenhalgh’s credit, I think, that he keeps the film on an intimate scale. This is about the love triangle between John, Julia and Mimi. He’s not concerned with what will come – it’s a similar approach he took with his screenplay for Control, the Ian Curtis biopic.

For her part, Taylor Wood seems to confirm a pattern established by Julian Schnabel and Steve McQueen of artists directing biopics. However, Taylor Wood’s film is nowhere near as experimental as either The Diving Bell And The Butterfly or Hunger were. She has a good eye for clear and straightforward storytelling. Aaron Johnson, making his debut here, does a fine job of pacing the part, considering he’s in every scene. But Nowhere Boy stands or falls by the performances of Julia and Mimi – and, inevitably, with Duff and Scott-Thomas Taylor Wood is blessed with two of the country’s best actresses. A pivotal scene – as Mimi and Julia spill family secrets – is electric.

Nowhere Boy opens in the UK on December 25. You can see the trailer here


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