The London Film Festival will close tonight with the world premiere of the feature debut from artist Sam Taylor-Wood, Nowhere Boy. It takes a look at the early years of John Lennon, when he was being brought up by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas in a fantastic performance), getting into music, and taking guitar lessons from a young squirt called Paul McCartney. Suchandrika Chakrabarti reviews.
As we’re used to with films from artists-turned-directors (see also: Hunger by Steve McQueen; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Julian Schnabel; Control by Anton Corbijn), the film looks absolutely beautiful – as the cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, puts it: “One thing we didn’t want to do was make a kitchen sink drama, just because we were depicting post-war Liverpool during the depression of the 50s.” The smallness of Lennon’s suburban surroundings is enlivened by bold colour, and the exuberance of his mother (Anne-Marie Duff, another great performance) is contrasted with Aunt Mimi’s conventionality by dressing the former in various shades of red and a select few other bright shades, and the latter in buttoned-up earth tones. The lure of Julia Lennon’s life to her son John is easy to see, but the reds also signal danger – she has disappointed him before, and she will again. This is what Mimi fears for the boy she and her husband George have brought up since he was just 5, in the absence of any children of her own.
Lennon’s story before he became an icon is fascinating, and it is told movingly in Nowhere Boy. His mother was married to his father, Alf Lennon, but his extended absence, due to working at sea, led her to an affair, an illegitimate child called Victoria (given up for adoption and later renamed Ingrid) and co-habiting with a new boyfriend, Bobby Dykins (David Morrissey), with whom she had Lennon’s half-sisters, Jacqui and Julia – all of which made her an outcast in 50s/60s Liverpool. Today, her crimes don’t seem quite so bad. Yet, Julia is emotionally fragile, and weak when it comes to providing security for Lennon – and this affected him all of his life. Aunt Mimi is sterner, but provides a safe framework within which the teenage Lennon can grow, make mistakes and learn.
The film is based upon the memoirs of Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, depicted as a child in the movie. As always with a deceased star of this magnitude, there are discrepancies between the story told here and told elsewhere; for instance, the film’s emotional core begins at Lennon discovering that his mother lives round the corner from his home at Mimi’s, meaning that she hasn’t bothered coming to see him in 10 years, since he was 5. However, other sources say that Julia was a regular chez Mimi and George, and had a warm relationship with her son, while never permanently sharing a home with him. Although the film isn’t explicitly from Julia Baird’s point of view, the source of the material shouldn’t be forgotten.
After John rediscovers his mother in the film, he flounders in attempting to place Julia in his life. She ‘s his mother, but Mimi is more of a real mother. Julia’s younger and more fun – and oddly flirtatious. She whisks him off to Blackpool for a day trip – leaving her daughters in the care of John’s young cousin – and she treats him like a new boyfriend who’s a little less knowledgable her, constantly kissing him, then whispering that rock’n’roll is all about sex, then dancing in the middle of a quiet beachfront cafe, in front of variously shocked and intrigued punters. Poor Lennon doesn’t know what’s hit him.
The film really belongs to his two mothers, Julia and Mimi. At a late point in the film, Lennon begs Mimi to remember that they are sisters, and never are the divisions so plain as in the (slightly earlier) climactic scene on his birthday, when Mimi forces Julia to finally lay bare exactly what circumstances led to Lennon being raised by his aunt, rather than his mother who lives just over the field. After this dramatic, painful and completely believable scene, the reconciliation between the sisters seems a little too easy – Mimi in particular was a famously spiky lady and it’s the only element of the film that doesn’t ring true, the two sisters sitting happily sitting side-by-side in deckchairs in the Mendips garden on a warm afternoon (see picture above). Really? Can 10 years of estrangement – as the film has it – be mended so easily? Perhaps the thawing of sisterly relations was dramatised so because of the nearness of Julia’s death, run down by an off-duty policeman in 1958 at the mere age of 44? The narrative compression is forgivable in these terms because it is an attempt at showing us the calm – the happiness, even – before the storm that irrevocably changed John Lennon, Mimi and the rest of the family.
The film is full of wonderful performances, with Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff stealing the show as the two main women in John Lennon’s early life. When onscreen, they are never less than mesmerising, and you do keep hoping that they will be brought together to solve all the mysteries of Lennon’s existence; in time, that scene does arrive, and it does not disappoint.
Relative newcomer, 19-year-old Aaron Johnson is sometimes overshadowed in the central role of Lennon, undoubtedly mirroring the real Lennon’s early experiences. The Liverpool accent of the Buckinghamshire native sometimes wanders, but he does a good job of conveying Lennon’s fascination with his newly-found mother, his alternate affection for and frustration with Aunt Mimi, and his alpha-male ways when it comes to forming a band – look no farther than his amusingly quick dismissal of a young Paul McCartney’s skills, who, in the next scene, is teaching Lennon how to move from banjo chords (“easy”) to guitar ones. There are, in facy, very few Beatles tracks played in the film (at one point, McCartney plays ‘Love Me Do’ for Julia Lennon; she correctly surmises that it’s about his dead mother); instead, we are placed firmly within a 50s context, wherein Elvis really is the king, and Julia Lennon’s screams for him (well, she is not alone) provoke Lennon into fashioning his own mop into a quiff. For a star so asscoiated with the 60s, it’s a surprising thing to see.
For me, born three years after his death, and only really aware of Lennon in his beardy Bed-In phase (and of course, according to my mum, McCartney has always been the only one worth caring about), this portrayal of Lennon’s making is gripping, and the three main characters are easy to empathise with, despite their conflicting wishes and actions. Some have criticised the lack of foreshadowing, of hints towards future Beatles moments, but, for me, that’s the beauty of it. If John Lennon interests you, don’t you want to know how he was made? And all of this happened years before anyone could ever have dreamt of his success. Taylor-Wood’s film conveys the poignant, complex and innately suburban story beautifully, without resorting to cheap biopic clichés.