A chronicle of John Lennon's first years, focused mainly in his adolescence and his relationship with his stern aunt Mimi, who raised him, and his absentee mother Julia, who re-entered his life at a crucial moment in his young life.
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The story of John Lennon's childhood and teenage years from 1944 to 1960, his relationship with his aunt Mimi and his mother Julia -the two dominant women in the first part of his life-, his first meeting with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, their friendship, their love for music and the birth of The Beatles. Written by
Period drama has long been a forte of the British cinema; prior to this one there had already been at least three excellent examples from 2009; "Young Victoria", "Dorian Grey" and "An Education". Traditional British costume drama has concentrated on the Victorian era and early twentieth century (roughly speaking 1837-1945), but Nowhere Boy, like "An Education", is set at a rather later period, in this case the late fifties.
The film is about the adolescence of John Lennon, while he was at school and art college in Liverpool. Unlike his three fellow Beatles, who were all from working-class backgrounds, Lennon grew up in middle-class suburbia with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, who had raised him since he was five. He was the son of Mimi's younger sister Julia by her husband Alf Lennon (referred to in the film as "Fred"), but the marriage was not a success, and after Julia began a relationship with another man, Mimi took care of the youngster, then five years old. Julia did not reappear in Lennon's life until his teenage years when a cousin informed him that, contrary to what he had previously thought, she was still living in Liverpool, only a short walk from his home.
The film focuses on the influence these two very different women had on Lennon's early life. Although they were sisters, they had wildly contrasting personalities. Julia was a bohemian extrovert, liberal in her social views and keen to foster her son's musical and artistic talents. Mimi (actually christened Mary Elizabeth) may have shared a nickname with the heroine of "La Boheme", but there was nothing bohemian about her. She was a strict disciplinarian who initially had little sympathy with John's musical aspirations and insisted that he get a "proper job", although eventually she gave in and agreed to buy him a guitar.
The film also charts Lennon's musical development, including his first meetings with Paul McCartney and George Harrison (Ringo, of course, did not come onto the scene until a few years later) and the birth of The Quarrymen, the band which was later to become The Beatles. There is a vivid picture of the British music scene in the late fifties, a time when trad jazz and rock-and-roll seemed to be competing to become the music of the future. There was also a curious British musical form, skiffle (actually a revival of an earlier American variety of jazz) which was influential at the time; The Quarrymen started out as a skiffle band.
The film also captures the look of the period; although the late fifties were a time of increasing material prosperity, there was much about British life which had a drab feel about it, especially the clothes and the interior decoration schemes. There is a contrast brought out between Mimi's house, decorated in various shades of brown and cream, and the brighter colours of Julia's which look forward to the more garish tastes that were to predominate in the sixties. (I remember growing up in a house where the living-room combined dark green wallpaper with a bright orange carpet- hideous today, but unexceptional at the time).
It was not so long ago that Kristin Scott Thomas was playing romantic heroines in films like "The English Patient"; today, casting directors seem to see her as a middle-aged battleaxe in roles like Veronica Whittaker in "Easy Virtue". Aunt Mimi at first seems like the bourgeois equivalent of the aristocratic Veronica, although she later shows that there is a gentler, more caring, side to her nature. (If Veronica Whittaker ever had a gentler side she kept it well-hidden, even from herself). Scott Thomas is even better here than she was in "Easy Virtue", because the role she is playing is more complex. Anne-Marie Duff is also very good as Julia and Aaron Johnson as Lennon seems like a young star in the making. Johnson is perhaps rather more handsome than Lennon was in real life, but he is able to convey a real sense of what he must have been like, in part a rebellious tearaway whose idea of fun is going for a ride on the roof of a bus, part emotionally vulnerable youngster torn between loyalty to his carefree, fun-loving mother and to his aunt, the woman who had cared for him since he was very young. The title "Nowhere Boy" is not just a play on the title of one of Lennon's best-known songs; it is also indicative of John's state of mind as he tries to reconcile these two influences on his life. Like his "Nowhere Man", he "Knows not where he's going to".
The film's main appeal will probably be to those with an interest in The Beatles, although in my view it can also be seen as a moving coming-of-age drama which can be enjoyed by those who can't tell Lennon and McCartney from Rodgers and Hammerstein or from Gilbert and Sullivan. It contains not only some great music but also some great acting. This was director Sam Taylor-Wood's first feature film but it is a debut of which she (that's Sam as in Samantha, not as in Samuel) can be proud. 8/10
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