Generally I don’t care for biopics. I’m reasonably certain they’ve not much in the way of ‘bio’ in them, and a great deal of fabrication, for how else can a real human being’s life be consistently interesting?
Luckily, “Nowhere Boy” does not try to cover the entire life of John Lennon, with all its stories about the Beatles and conflicts and life after the break up. This charming film about young John Lennon is a story of a lad that may offer insight into the music John created in the late 1950s, the world-changing 1960s, and into the 1970s that still resonates with us today. John and the lads are in Hamburg at the film’s end, so still not the John we all remember -- relatively safe territory, the film is based on a memoir by John’s half sister, Julia Baird, transformed into a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh.
We meet John living with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, his mother an unknown entity since John was five. We occasionally see her as he remembers her, through a frosted window in a door slammed by Mimi. He appears to be a perfectly ordinary teenaged boy who doesn’t wish to wear his glasses, does look at girlie magazines, gets into scuffles at school and the bus stop, gets suspended from school – the usual stuff. The unusual bit is what’s hiding inside him waiting to come out.
John is very well played by Aaron Johnson, who resembles John, though the actor is nicer looking. Johnson gives us John’s expressions, the mile-a-minute patter with many voices we first heard in “A Hard Day’s Night.” Johnson has that all down pat, and does an excellent job showing us John’s frustration, pain, and possibilities as he grows in those critical teenage years.
Mimi is played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas. She is strict by today’s standards, chilly, with a brittle smile hiding a volcano inside. While John, in typical teenage fashion, doesn’t see how much she cares, we do.
Uncle George is a grown up boy, making John giggle with delight, and promising mouth organ lessons. David Threlfall’s George is as warm as his wife is cool, but he is a man who knows when he’s loved – unlike John. We lose George early in the film, a tragic loss that unites John with his mother Julia for the first time in a decade.
Julia is first seen at the edge of the graveyard, her exile from her family so complete that she may not come to George’s funeral. John’s cousin, however, knows how to find the missing Julia, and on a day when Mimi is told they’re going to Blackpool, the two boys walk across a park to another part of the same town, and knock on John’s mum’s door.
The glorious, fragile, brilliant, slightly off Julia is played by Anne-Marie Duff. She wants John, but has accepted her sister’s unofficial adoption and her own exile – until John makes the choice to reconnect. Julia has two young daughters by her present husband, Bobby, played by a quiet and wary David Morrissey. Bobby is understandably reluctant to have the volatile teenage boy take his wife’s attention away from their young daughters, but he is kind and solicitous of Julia. It’s as if Bobby knows every blow up that will happen long before it does – if only because he knows the truth about Julia and her first husband Alf, and remembers being a teenaged boy himself. Bobby’s disapproval is protective. No one, in fact, in this film, is cast as a ‘bad’ guy. Everyone is imperfect, everyone has foibles, everyone is lovable one moment and despised the next as happens between friends and family. Everyone is quite real.
Julia is talented and teaches John to play the banjo. Julia also dances, Julia sings, Julia is the life of the party, Julia is a flirt. She flirts with men on their excursion to Blackpool, she flirts with John’s friends, she flirts with John. John is discomfited by this; the stark contrast to her sister Mimi is unstated, but clear. Mimi always made responsible choices; Julia did not. The reactions to choices and behaviors are of their time, while quite understandable in our own.
The story is filmed in muted tones, giving its postwar England setting reality with some distance. Dialogue and scenes of the film evoke songs that we’ve known for years; words and phrases here and there will grow up to be lyrics. It’s a pleasure to watch the creation of our John, the beginning of his relationship with Paul -- who assures John that the poems John writes will become songs when they’re set to music. Mimi and Julia differently and vitally contribute to the making of John the musician/poet.
John forms the Quarrymen, his mother always a bouncing fan looking at the enthusiastic young girls with something resembling jealousy. A girlish-looking boy smirks in the audience one night, and he is introduced as George, who, says Paul, “should be in the band.” And so we at last have three of the Fab Four playing together.
“Nowhere Boy” is a sweet story well told, deftly directed by Sam Taylor-Wood. Period costumes, mores and music color in the story of another time, in which no houses are locked, everyone smokes an enormous amount, cursing was an aberration instead of the norm, and everything was possible. Fans of the Beatles, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Anne-Marie Duff (I am now!) will enjoy “Nowhere Boy.” Other noteworthy performances came from Thomas Brodie Sangster as Paul and Josh Bolt as John’s buddy Pete. But then, all of the performances were excellent.
All in all I had a wonderful time and went home to play all my old Beatles records. You will too.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to dance to the music of the Beatles.