01 January 2011

Review: "Nowhere Boy"

I grew up in a house where The Beatles are revered with religious devotion. Paul McCartney is my family's supreme Beatle, but Nowhere Boy is the story of John Lennon's teenage years leading up to The Beatles performances in Hamburg. Nowhere Boy is not a film about The Beatles, it is a story about John Lennon and his relationship with his estranged mother and the aunt that raised him. This is the feature film debut of director Sam Taylor-Wood, who has worked as a photographer and artist. The film was mired in some controversy prior to its release because Taylor-Wood, aged forty-three, began a relationship with the film's star, Aaron Johnson, who is now only twenty. The film is based on the memoir Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon by Julia Baird, John's half-sister. A lot of the film focuses on John's relationship with the two women in his life: his mother Julia, who was unable to cope with the responsibility of a son, and his aunt Mimi, who took John away from her sister in order to give him a proper upbringing. These two women, played by Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas, are the emotional core of the film. Aaron Johnson does a good job playing the musical icon, but the film owes its success to Duff and Scott Thomas. While the story of John Lennon's childhood is not nearly as interesting as the story of The Beatles, Nowhere Boy is still an insightful look at the pre-Beatles legend with a pair of fantastic performances from its supporting actresses.

Nowhere Boy looks at John Lennon's adolescent years growing up in Liverpool. In the late 1950s he is living with his aunt Mimi (Scott Thomas) and his uncle George (David Threlfall). Mimi is very stern and forces classical music on John whereas George is more fit to fool around with his nephew. Following the death of his uncle, John's cousin encourages him to look for Julia (Duff), his mother. John discovers that his mother lives within walking distance of Mimi. Unbeknownst to Mimi, John and Julia reunite and she begins introducing her son to rock and roll music. John even lies to Mimi about a school suspension and spends everyday with his mother, who teaches him how to play banjo and guitar. Julia's husband Bobby (David Morrissey) does not support Julia's relationship with John, even though she is fit to raise her two daughters Julia and Jacqui. Soon John realizes that he is better off living with Mimi and she buys him a guitar. He soon starts his own band and is eventually introduced to Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster). Without focusing too much on the budding talents of John and Paul, the film looks at the relationship between John and these two women and the secrets that have been kept from him.

Nowhere Boy is obviously a play on The Beatles song Nowhere Man. The song, released in 1966 from the album Rubber Soul, is credited to Lennon/McCartney but was written by John Lennon. John admitted that the song is autobiographical. The lyrics, "He's a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans, for nobody," make a fitting title for a film about an adolescent John torn between two homes. The film is still surprisingly able to sustain its emotional through the duration of the film without having to turn the focus to The Beatles. John had an interesting childhood, but not unlike others in the world, but the success of the film rests in the performances. Aaron Johnson creates an empathetic but troubled John Lennon and it is easy to envision this incarnation of John becoming the John Lennon we know further along in time. The real treasure of Nowhere Boy is Kristin Scott Thomas who is so adept at creating multidimensional characters. Whether in French or English she is the consummate actress and I will never tire of watching her reinvent herself on screen.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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