Based on the memoir Imagine That by Lennon’s sister, Julia, Nowhere Boy is a fresh and emotionally taut drama which captures the rage and excitement of the post war years; a time of inherited austerity feeling the initial tremors of the Rock and Rock seismic change just around the corner. It is a playful and moving character study of the young Beatle, whose life is struck repeatedly with tragedy and who searches for a foundation in the fractured family unit consisting of Aunt Mimi and her sister, John’s Mother, Julia.
John Lennon is an icon recognisable the world over and his music, with The Beatles and his tragically short solo career, influenced millions of people. Where Taylor-Wood and Greenhalgh succeed is in taking the mythology of Lennon and his fellow Beatles and find an ocean of emotional turmoil to dive into. The early tragedy of his Uncle’s death sparks the touchpaper of an already unstable young man and the film follows his life through the rebelliousness and euphoria of teenage life with a care and sensitivity which is gripping and captures the excitement of the time.
Beatles fans will spot the customary Liverpool landmarks of Strawberry Fields and The Cavern club but these are cursory nods and the film eschews the conventions of the music biopic and allow the characters, so familiar to us, to form. The streets of Liverpool are awash with dockers and bus-surfing teddy boys, and the dialogue crackles with Scouse wit and backchat dripping with sarcasm, lifting the inherent melodrama and bringing the story to life. The cold, stifled atmosphere of Mendips, home to Lennon and Aunt Mimi contrasts perfectly with the riotous colourful abode of Lennon’s Mother Julia and both are beautifully realised and peopled with actors of great capability.
Johnson does a remarkable job as our leading man, bringing a charisma and tangible excitement to John Lennon as he rampages out of control on the stage and coolly dismisses a flick-knife in the face by a local bully. His chaotic genius and energetic sadness is captivating. He is recognisably John Lennon, but with an unformed quality that is so necessary as he is buffeted by the forces of family loyalty and the wealth of secrets that lay in repressed memories of a grey Blackpool day out long ago.
While the narrative adheres faithfully (perhaps prosaically) to the story it succeeds in capturing the moments that matter beautifully. Lennon’s rowdy behaviour in school, the uncertain rebel trying to cope with the loss of family, the arrogant showman learning his trade from a fresh faced, tea drinking Paul McCartney, the frustrated son searching in vain for a sense of harmony to his life; all shades of Lennon are rendered impressively by a brilliant performance. For the first time in a long while Aaron Johnson made me want to be the character I saw on screen.
I cannot praise the supporting cast enough. Anne-Marie Duff continues her startling rise with a nuanced and sympathetic performance as the trouble Julia and director Taylor-Wood wisely refuses to linger on the obvious traits of her character, instead Duff is able to bring a caricature to ebullient life. In contrast the third point of the triangle is Mimi, played with precision and outstanding depth by Kristen Scott Thomas, trying to bring up the wayward teenager with a sense of discipline while keeping dark secrets at bay. Her subtleties and understanding of the drama of the story is an essential component of why this film, at one crucial point, literally left me breathless.
Nowhere Boy takes a man whose life has transcended cultural boundaries and looks back as he struggles to become greater than the accident of his birth. The token scenes of the early Beatles performances excite and the dynamics of the characters are pitched perfectly and the final shock, when it comes, is devastating. Sam Taylor-Wood has earned the praise she is rightfully receiving as an artist and now as a film maker.
This film is a perfect end to a magnificent London Film Festival, and serves to remind the world that the talent of British film makers has never been greater and a new British cultural identity is being established here and now.