A staid look at a Beatle's youth
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 15, 2010
The photographer Sam Taylor-Wood is part of the Young British Artists who became stars in the 1990s, her work causing the occasional cultural ruckus. For London's National Portrait Gallery, she made the controversial decision to submit a video of soccer star David Beckham sleeping. Earlier, along with fellow YBA Henry Bond, she reenacted Annie Leibovitz's famous portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono entwined on a bed.
Cheeky! Which makes it all the more surprising that Taylor-Wood has played it safe and made an utterly conventional biopic with "Nowhere Boy," her feature debut about the early life of Lennon. Although Aaron Johnson ("Kick-Ass") delivers an affecting performance as a confused Liverpool teenager torn between two mother figures and nurturing inchoate creative impulses, the movie succumbs to maudlin sentiment and melodrama that Lennon himself might have dismissed with one of his signature cutting remarks.
Then again, with "Nowhere Boy" opening within days of what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday, perhaps indulging in a nostalgic tear or two can be forgiven. "Nowhere Boy" opens with the same exhilarating dissonant chord that begins "Hard Day's Night," as a 15-year-old Lennon and a chum run the Liverpool streets and greenswards in 1955. At home, the mood is a bit more dour, as Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) rules the roost with postwar stiff-upper-lipism and Uncle George (David Threlfall) offers shots of mordant humor and a nip from his flask.
Within these cozy if austere confines, Lennon is carrying a torch: He longs for the distant Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), his fiery redheaded mother who abandoned him at 5 and who, he discovers in early scenes, lives just blocks away. "Nowhere Boy," adapted by Matt Greenhalgh from a book by Lennon's half-sister, at this point becomes a romantic, albeit richly detailed origin myth, locating much of Lennon's subsequent genius in the primal wound of his mother's absence, the tidal pull of Oedipal desire and Lennon's own unresolved place between two formidable female forces.
Taylor-Wood also includes scenes of Lennon's nascent musical career, as he forms the skiffle band the Quarrymen in his school loo, later meeting an angel-faced boy named Paul (Thomas Brodie Sangster). And admittedly, those scenes of early jam sessions and Cavern gigs possess the giddy, infectious brio of the greatness to come.
But primarily "Nowhere Boy" focuses on the volatile triangle of John, Julia and Aunt Mimi, each of whom comes to life by way of alert, vital performances. Scott Thomas wrings improbable sympathy from a woman who would rebuff displays of affection with a curt "Don't be silly." And Johnson, while not bearing a literal resemblance to Lennon, manages to convey his wit, intelligence and flashes of cruelty with uncanny sensitivity.
Even with all this talent and earnestness, though, "Nowhere Boy" still feels indulgent, slight and almost instantly forgettable. It's not offensive as much as merely inoffensive, and volumes less consequential than the music and the man himself.
Contains a scene of sexuality and profanity.