As a devout fan of the Beatles and the work of John Lennon, ‘Nowhere Boy’ was always going to speak my language. The film is directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, her debut picture and stars Aaron Taylor Johnson as Lennon. It was adapted from the book, ‘Imagine this: Growing up with my brother John Lennon’, written by half-sister, Julia Baird. The film is notable for its very small budget of just over £1 million and being the breakout movie for both Taylor Johnson and Taylor-Wood.
If you’re expecting the narrative to explore the formation of the fab four and the early years of the band’s career, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If, however, you’re interested in the early years of Lennon’s life and the origins of his angry, disturbed and bitter outlook, look no further. The film pulls no punches and takes a hard look at the formative years of the Beatles frontman, showing the full tragedy of his harsh upbringing and (lack of) a stable family life as well as lighter moments in his life, such as meeting a young Paul McCartney for the first time. The historical authenticity of the events presented here may be slightly questionable based on feedback from various Beatles historians, but the spirit of the characters is presented with delicacy and respect, but covered with sombre overtones of gritty realism.
The cast is mostly wonderful, particularly Taylor-Johnson as the young Lennon. He brings a rage and blinding sadness to the broken youth, whilst also perfectly conveying John’s famous sardonic wit and fiendish sense of humour. Also excellent are both Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff (there are a lot of double barrelled names in this), as Lennon’s Aunt Mimi and mother, Julia Lennon, respectively. While I feel that Taylor Wood’s direction sometimes pushes Lennon’s relationship with his mother to uncomfortable levels (a practice that would later be implemented in her follow up film, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’), the characterisation of both actors is well realised and both characters are given suitable arcs that have satisfying emotional climaxes. My one casting dispute is with Thomas Sangster (the kid from Love Actually and Game of Thrones) as Paul McCartney. There’s no doubt that Sangster is an excellent actor and he performs well here as an archetypical friend to John Lennon, but I never get the sense that he is McCartney in the same was I do with Taylor Johnson as Lennon. This is forgivable for Sam Bell as George Harrison, who is essentially just represented as a cameo part, but Sangster has many pivotal, dramatic scenes to prove himself as McCartney, and I unfortunately just don’t get it from him. Perhaps such a recognisable character actor was the wrong choice and a lesser known, musically talented actor who physically resembles one of the most famous musicians in the world would’ve been a more suitable choice.
As a Liverpool resident (albeit a recent one), I was also amazed by the velocity of scenes shot on location. The cinematography really is gorgeous and uses the grand, old, gritty architecture of the city to its advantage. With a few modern signs removed and period appropriate cars added, we are transported back to late 50’s Liverpool and it looks brilliant. Sound also plays a major part in the formation of this aesthetic and the wide range of 1950’s songs used within the films otherwise solemn soundtrack not only help in establishing the period, but also give appropriate emotional weight to dramatic scenes, whilst adding some needed levity to the happier moments of Lennon’s life.
In conclusion, I liked ‘Nowhere Boy’ very much. It touched me in the emotionally climactic scenes, of which there are many and made me laugh in the lighter scenes of which there are, appropriately, fewer. Taylor Johnson is truly stunning as Lennon and nails every element of his complex personality perfectly; the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an academy award for this performance is criminal. Though it doesn’t always entirely hit its mark, a bit of odd questionable casting and a few jarring emotional shifts aside, it works and left me feeling both inspired and educated by its end. If you’re a Beatles fan, it’s a must, but it remains highly recommended for anyone who loves British filmmaking and just well-done drama.