With this account of the troubled adolescence of the young John Lennon, conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood makes her leap into feature films.
But if you’re expecting anything as audaciously original as Hunger, last year’s Bobby Sands movie from Taylor-Wood’s fellow conceptual artist Steve McQueen, you’ll be disappointed.
Nowhere Boy is an accomplished but conventional biopic – troubled upbringing, early struggles, social rebellion and all – rescued from banality by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh’s ear for dialogue and two riveting lead performances.
As Lennon, Aaron Johnson makes a fair shot at the soon-to-be Beatle but looks altogether too comfortably bred, missing the raw Scouse edginess of the young misfit. (Also he’s too old for the early scenes where John’s only 14.)
But the dialogue oftencompensates, giving us the full force of Lennon’s cruel wit. When his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who walked out on him when he was five, points out he has something in common with Paul McCartney, who’s also lost his mother, Lennon snaps back pitilessly, “She ’ad cancer. What’s your excuse?”
Duff’s portrayal of Julia – warm, flighty, helplessly unstable – offers one of the film’s two standout performances; the other is Kristin Scott Thomas as her sister Mimi, John’s de facto foster mother. Mimi’s everything Julia isn’t – buttoned-up, sardonic, controlled to the point of frigidity.
In the face of Julia’s unabashed, near-incestuous delight in John’s burgeoning talent, Mimi grows colder and more censorious (“She liked company, if you know what I mean,” she tells John), and the climactic clash of sisters judders with unleashed emotion and years of resentment.
The name of The Beatles is never mentioned, though we get the occasional premonitory nudge: at one point John, out on the town, is contemptuously turned away from The Cavern by a beefy bouncer. We end with John and his band heading off for Hamburg – and all that followed.
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No surprises in this account of the troubled pre-Beatles adolescence of John Lennon, but sharp scripting and a pair of outstanding performances lift it out of routine biopic territory.