Nowhere Boy

Director    Sam Taylor Wood
Starring    Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Sangster, David Morrissey, Ophelia Lovebond
Release    TBA (US) 25 DEC (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


26th December 2009

The iconic opening chord of A Hard Day's Night is one of the most recognisable introductions to any song ever recorded. It's a one-of-a-kind, messy clash that is an audacious start to an otherwise well-loved melody, and, fittingly, it's the first thing we hear in this portrayal of John Lennon's early troublesome youth.

But the singing never kicks in. Instead, the perfectly reproduced chord just lingers, ringing out as we see our first glimpse of Lennon running past Liverpool Concert Hall. It's a neat way of letting us know that we're not going to see the legend, just the beginning of one. And just like the chord, it's a jarring experience.

Adapted from an autobiographical account written by Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, this is a study of the long-haired lover from Liverpool's formative teenage years. The film opens in 1955, where a young Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is raised by his chiding, stoical Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). When he discovers that his real mum Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who abandoned him as a toddler, lives nearby, there ensues a conflict between the two maternal relationships in his life, leading to frustration and anger in Lennon matched only by his new-found passion for rock 'n' roll.

[gallery]From the offset, all of this seems like Angry Schoolboy Psychology For Dummies, and makes for clumsy film poster tagline puns like, "All Lennon needs is love". However, a well-crafted script and exceptional performances from the movie's leads raise this far above what could have been a 'man behind the myth' hatchet job.

Of course, the film rests ultimately on Aaron Johnson's young shoulders as the titular Nowhere Boy, and he does a sterling job, playing the lad Lennon with the perfect amount of wide-eyed naivety, despite a distracting age disparity between actor and role. Later, he subtly portrays the budding musician's transition from mischief to rebellion, via cockiness and self-importance, all of which is tempered by the calming influence of his mum.

John Lennon's career is riddled with not-so-subtle references to his mother, which do nothing to disguise the fact that she had a profound effect on his life. With lines such as, "Mother, you had me / But I never had you", there is an obvious Oedipal hint to the relationship and this is also heavily suggested in director Sam Taylor-Wood's film. It's enough to make you raise an eyebrow and say "Really?" just 20 minutes into the movie, but it is a plausible subtext that adds to Lennon's adolescent frustration.

This is mainly down to Anne-Marie Duff's ditzy Julia, whose care-free spirit results in an overt display of affection for her estranged son which often strays on the wrong side of flirting. While Johnson simmers as a confused and jealous Lennon, Duff's Julia behaves provocatively without ever seeming perverse. During the film's powerful and heart-wrenching climax, Aunt Mimi explains to John that his mother "liked company, if you know what I mean". We all know what she means.

It is to the film's credit, then, that while the main storyline focuses on the subject's tentative relationships with his mother (and his aunt) the real emotional pay-off comes, not during the aforementioned climax, but during more tender scenes involving the two sisters, Julia and Mimi. It makes for a sensitive aspect of Lennon's quandary, which helps to take the focus off a star-in-the-making.

Of course, all this does is help to appreciate the background to Lennon's situation, just as the film itself aims to better understand Lennon as a man instead of a songwriter or hairy hippy. Lennon himself once said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" and, if nothing else, this is a fascinating insight into the world of John Lennon just as he was about to start a musical career that would turn him into a legend.

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