Seeing Aaron Johnson bashing out the chords to ‘Hello Little Girl’, an early John Lennon composition, is at first striking and heartbreaking at the same time. On this, the day when the world is honoring what would have been the 70th birthday of Lennon, seeing Johnson so wonderfully capture the raw essence of the character so many people know is worth seeing Nowhere Boy for that sequence alone.
However, there’s more to the back-story of John Lennon than a guitar, some greased back hair and a cigarette. What lies beneath his rock and roll facade is heartbreak, mental anguish, and a strong sense of not knowing where he fit in. These are the things I was most skeptical of going in, wondering if the film would be able to achieve those basic character elements.
In a nutshell, it did.
The film begins with the crashing opening chord from ‘A Hard Days Night’, which slowly gives way to the whine of orchestral strings. It’s a great introduction; it shows Lennon waking from a dream and into the reality of his life – which in the beginning is stable. He lives with his Uncle George and Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas), and it is his Uncle who first opens the door to music for him with the gift of a harmonica. Shortly thereafter his Uncle dies suddenly, leaving John alone with his domineering Aunt Mimi. Mimi tries to keep John sheltered from the world, something that she soon discovers is quite impossible. His love of music is ignited when his relationship with his outgoing mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) is re-established; when she teaches him some banjo chords the rest is literally history. Lennon forms a band, recruits some friends from school (later adding McCartney and Harrison), and eventually discovers the truth as to why his Aunt has been raising him all these years. It’s an event that leaves him scarred. but ultimately gives him the push to leave home that he had been searching for – and propels him on to greater things.
For first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood, this works very well as a stand-alone film. Take the celebrity of the Lennon name out of the equation and the film would still hold up quite well. There have been complaints elsewhere that the film tends to come across as “soap operish”, but I’d have to disagree. At no point does the story leave the character wallowing in misery, or infecting others with his dull existence. When a crisis hits, the cinematic Lennon deals with it in much the same way his real-life counterpart did: with either a joke, violence or a quick runaway! It’s in those moments that allow the audience a peek inside the shell of the celebrity and help them establish a connection with him. It’s a credit to screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh and director Taylor-Wood that they were able to achieve this with such a well-known figure as John Lennon.
However (and there are always “however’s”), the film is not without its problems. There are two very large and glaring issues I had with the film, and they have to do with Mimi and how Taylor-Wood and Greenhalgh decided to present her, as well as with her sister Julia. For one the film portrays Mimi as an evil domineering witch of a person who cares little for the boy under her guardianship and more about money and cultural status. While the historical Mimi was certainly a disciplinarian, the movie does her a great disservice by reducing her in this manner. I understand why they went this way – they needed more conflict, but for me they could have found it elsewhere instead of creating this wicked caricature. Luckily she is allowed to mellow towards the end, but the way in which she was handled in the beginning was borderline cartoonish. This was more of a historical criticism than a performance one, as Kristen Scott Thomas is superb as Mimi. She conveys the sharp and demanding presence the director wanted beautifully.
The other glaring issue is with Lennon’s mother, Julia. Historically she was in his life almost constantly until her death when Lennon was 17. However, the film has them estranged for years, only to have him reconnect with her following his Uncle’s death. Again, why the need to alter the truth so dramatically is strange. Julia had her own issues, and there was definitely conflict between her and her son – so there was no reason for the altering of these facts. What they were looking for thematically already existed, there was no need to tinker with it… especially as much as they did. It just seems rather sloppy; surely they would be aware that anyone with any insight into the histories would notice these inaccuracies. On the positive side, Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of Julia is wonderful and poignant at the same time. She is allowed to appear more human than Mimi, and does a great job exploring the high-spirited nature of the character.
There are several other less obtrusive inaccuracies with Nowhere Boy that are baffling because they could have easily been avoided. Some are extremely nit-picky, but for a Beatles fan they stand out prominently. They include:
- Lennon’s first guitar was given to him by his mother Julia, but here in the film it’s Mimi who provides it for him. The only explanation for this is that the filmmakers wanted to show that Mimi wasn’t totally horrible towards John – something they wouldn’t have had to do had they not ramped up her character so much.
- The film has The Quarrymen playing the wrong song when McCartney first hears them: it was ‘Come Go With Me’ in reality, the Liverpudlian ballad ‘Maggie May’ in the film.
- The scene where they record ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’, their first acetate, omits
McCartney’s complimentary backing vocal to Lennon’s lead. Still, I have to say this is a
great scene regardless!
- Cynthia, John’s girlfriend and the future mother of Julian, is missing entirely. This is
probably due to her not coming on the scene until he was in Art College, but the film
covers some of that time and could have at least mentioned her somewhere.
In spite of these issues, the film still manages to work very well. I understand that most of the issues I have with the historical aspects would not be readily apparent to Joe Moviegoer, but it’s something I had to take into consideration. Nowhere Boy succeeds wonderfully as a drama detailing the struggles between an outgoing, energetic boy who is struggling to find meaning to his life, and his relationship with his overbearing Aunt and flighty mother. The trifecta of Aaron Johnson, Kristen Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff are what help make this film work; Taylor-Wood does a fabulous job sculpting their relationships with one another. It’s also a credit to Taylor-Wood and Aaron Johnson that they were able to have Lennon connect so well with the audience. It may have some problems in the historical department, but so do most other biopics so it isn’t something that will break the experience for you. It’s still a good John Lennon film and an even better coming-of-age story; the decision to close the movie with the real John Lennon demo of ‘Mother’ is so stunning, it’s borderline brilliant.
An excellent debut for Sam Taylor-Wood, but some Beatles fans may have problems with a few of the liberties taken.