Monday, October 25, 2010
"Nowhere Boy"--A Movie Review
It was a nice coincidence that I happened to see the British John Lennon biopic "Nowhere Boy" a day after watching "The Social Network". "Nowhere Boy" is a throwback to a traditional style of film biography, with a difference: this film stops before Lennon even imagines that he will achieve fame, fading out as he leaves home for Hamburg with his young mates Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Next to "The Social Network", the more conventional storytelling of "Nowhere Boy" seems almost stodgy.
And yet, it works most of the time, in a simple and emotional way. Whereas "Social Network" looked at creative genius in a world of privilege, in which success is achieved at the expense of happiness or personal fulfillment, "Nowhere Boy" chronicles the rise of a musical talent of few means or advantages. We are invited on a journey of wild, dangerous joy and primal heartbreak. As a result, in spite of some awkwardness in character development and conflicts verging on melodrama, this film is enormously satisfying.
John Lennon was abandoned by his birth mother, Julia, at a young age, and raised by his buttoned-up aunt Mimi and exuberant uncle George. When George dies, Julia reappears in Lennon's life, to sister Mimi's dismay. The film follows Lennon's anguish of divided loyalties between mother and aunt, and how that influenced his emerging passion for music. The movie treatment of Mark Zuckerberg ignores his background and past; he is a cipher. Lennon's story is all background, and heart. It moves across the screen like a fast car from one's youth.
Ann-Marie Duff (a well-known British actress and wife of actor James McAvoy) plays Julia with an almost dangerous lack of character boundaries. Her nearly incestuous familiarity with her handsome son creates an interesting dilemma that builds to scenes of increasing intensity and tragic resolution. Kristin Scott Thomas is Mimi, a refined and detached guardian, restrained to the point of impassiveness, but in reality a volcano waiting to erupt. I have missed her appearance on the big screen lately. Rarely has she had an opportunity to hide her lead-actress glamor inside a character part. Her skill anchors the film and lifts it from conventional soap opera.
As the young John Lennon, an aimless and fun-loving adolescent with a poet's soul and a rascal's smolder, Aaron Johnson is cute and passionate, and has a strong physicality on-screen. There are shadows of a resemblance to the real-life Lennon. Johnson, who is engaged to be married to director Sam(antha) Taylor-Wood with whom he has a daughter, gives everything to this part. Wood obviously loves this guy, and her camera can't get enough of Johnson in a variety of closeups, styles, and romantic circumstances. Beneath the burnished, well designed period surface, there is a definite sexual heat.
"Nowhere Boy" was released last December in Britain, and after a few festival appearances (one in Chicago in August), the picture has been widely released here. My only reservation was whether or not anyone not familiar with The Beatles or John Lennon would be engaged in this picture. I admit, my enjoyment was enhanced by my knowledge of what Lennon would become, his fame and infamy, and his tragic end. But there is such energy, and the musical scenes are staged with such care, and the unusual relationships hold fascination all on their own, that the fact that this is Lennon's story is almost incidental.
Would this story of a boy torn between his two female caregivers justify an entire film if the protagonist were fictional? I would say, based on the stirring result here, the answer is yes.