There is not a moment in Nowhere Boy when director Sam Taylor-Wood displays anything less than the utmost respect for her subject. A not-so-much biopic as examination of John Lennon’s formative years, leading up to the time just before he went to Hamburg with what would become The Beatles takes the grueling childhood of its star and spins it into drama. ‘Oh,’ it purports, ‘the poor boy! The trials he faced wedged between two mother figures and with no father in his life!’ It almost plays like an answer to Lennon’s own song “Mother,” which plays over the end credits: “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.”
Times are tough for young Lennon. Or, so the film would have you believe. Here’s what Lennon himself had to say about his childhood: “This image of me being an orphan is garbage, because I was well protected by my auntie and uncle and they looked after me very well, thanks.” Taylor-Wood’s film is a pretty impressive accomplishment, a good introduction to those unfamiliar with one of the greatest and most prominent figures of the 20th Century. The central casting, in particular, falls just short of perfect. It strives harder than most for authenticity, both to its subject and its period. It also still trips up on the pratfalls of its genre: scrubbing up the key moments for drama points, and tending to re-arrange the life of its subject in order to fit director’s / screenwriter’s sanctimonious view.
John Lennon is an insouciant and fairly arrogant school student. In late '50s London, he rides on top of buses, fails his classes, and burns a subsequent notice when he is suspended. He lives with his caring albeit possessive and stern Aunt Mimi, for reasons sort-of but not entirely known to him, and after his Uncle dies his home life becomes even lonelier. However, the re-appearance in his life of his real mother, Julia, may provide the answers he seeks. His new-found passion for rock music, also, will lead him to found a skiffle group which will become The Beatles. Thomas Sangster’s usual charm comes off as twee and he is misplaced as Paul McCartney, while George Harrison doesn’t look anything like himself, but I guess this picture isn’t about them.
Aaron Johnson convinces as Lennon. You don’t quite feel like you’re watching John Lennon, and his portrayal – as well as the accent – is better at some times than others, but he has the swagger, he has the drawl, and he carries the part. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as Mimi, tight-lipped but with such depth behind her gaze. Anne-Marie Duff sparkles as Julia and looks the part, but struggles to create the right dynamic with John – not helped by the fact that she never looks much older than her alleged son. The opening scenes, in particular, put forward an uncomfortable interpretation of Lennon’s supposed ‘mother complex.’ These are weirdly flirtatious, and of course Julia’s partner, Bobby, and John never really get along. It made me feel like I was watching Hamlet.
The film has a breezy feel, sporadically interrupted by the drama scenes in which Mimi and Julia bicker over John. These are powerful and bolstered by committed performances. It’s the handling of the everyday material that bothers the most. Lennon is portrayed as a smooth ladies’ man, yet never is Cynthia Lennon mentioned by name in the entire film. Did Cynthia not want to participate? Or does she simply not rank a mention next to the twin maternal pillars already in the film? Either way, she was undoubtedly a key female figure at this time in Lennon’s life. I daresay it’s a bit callow and ignorant on the part of the film-makers to exclude her for the Mimi/Julia angle.
Additionally, those who know the story of Lennon’s relationship with Julia will spend the film waiting for the tragic accident that took her life. This is poorly done, neither exploring the traumatic effect it had on John as fully as it could have, nor allowing it to be a more devastating, unseen denouement. Taylor-Wood for some reason feels the need to show us the car accident that killed Julia, followed by a shot of her lying in the road, eyes vacant. Does anyone really need to see this to comprehend what happened? Car crashes in drama films are usually visceral and horribly vivid moments, the carnage enough to make us paranoid about going out on the road again. This one is handled redundantly, as if Taylor-Wood is ticking the box to account for Julia’s demise. Why?
Nowhere Boy could certainly be worse as a biopic. It follows, then, to wonder if it has a purpose. It certainly admires its subject, and yet as pure hagiography, it would have been better exploring Lennon’s star years, or his decision to leave the Beatles and start his solo career. Instead, outside of recounting the drama of young John Lennon– for there was a lot of drama in his early life – it seems to lack a position. It’s almost as if Taylor-Wood directs Nowhere Boy as a no-strings-attached project, stirring up the Oedipal side of Lennon and the two women that wanted him while divorcing this from any comment on how it influenced him as a man.
Perhaps one could argue that the viewer is meant to make up their own mind. But then, why film it? Why not let the many theories about Lennon’s work and life continue to bubble in fan circles and among ‘Beatles scholars,’ and let the faithful seek out their own facts (several events are changed here, presumably for ‘dramatic purposes’) rather than having it told to them in feature-length format? It’s like the non-ending of the film: Lennon goes off to Hamburg, and text on the screen informs us that he called Mimi ‘every week for the rest of his life.’ His tale is necessarily unfinished, incomplete. Can that really be called satisfactory?