A respectable but surprisingly conventional feature-debut effort from Brit artist-turned-helmer Sam Taylor-Wood, “Nowhere Boy” offers a portrait of pop star John Lennon as an angry, ’50s-era young man, just before he became a working-class hero. Focusing less on Lennon’s growth as an artist than on the peculiar emotional love triangle between him, his mother and the aunt who raised him, this sharp-edged upmarket meller feels precision-tooled to garner awards and lukewarm B.O., but may have a harder time winning any lasting regard. Opening Dec. 26 in Blighty, the Weinstein Co. pickup still awaits a Stateside release date.
With reissues of the Beatles’ back catalog still selling by the truckload, there ought to be a guaranteed aud for this depiction of Lennon’s youth. But Lennon fans may be disappointed to find the only song actually written by their hero in the film is his first ditty, the Everly Brothers-esque “Hello Little Girl.” Tellingly and teasingly, the name “the Beatles” is never even mentioned once.
Indeed, the pic assumes perhaps too much that viewers will know where the story is headed after the final credits roll, concentrating wholly as it does on what shaped Lennon rather than what he achieved. In an early scene, Lennon (Aaron Johnson, from “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging”) announces with typical cockiness that he’s a genius, but there’s little onscreen to back his assertion apart from a few quick-witted quips.
Scribes Julia Baird (Lennon’s half-sister, who wrote a memoir of their childhood) and Matt Greenhalgh (who penned the well-regarded Ian Curtis biopic “Control”) fudges a few facts but is largely faithful, at least in spirit, to the biographical record. Action opens with an already rebellious Lennon living with his working-class-made-good aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband, George Smith (David Threlfall), in Liverpool.
When George dies suddenly, Lennon spots his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), at the funeral. For reasons only revealed later, Julia had handed John over to Mimi when he was 5 years old and never visited him again. Learning that Julia lives only a few streets away, he goes to visit her and she receives him rapturously, lavishing affection on him in a borderline-inappropriate way. (According to some sources, Julia actually saw Lennon throughout his childhood, but they did become much closer when he was 11).
The unconventional but fragile Julia, who has two other children with her b.f. (David Morrissey, achieving much with a slight part), introduces John to rock ‘n’ roll and teaches him the banjo. Mimi, protective of John but also jealous, warns him off both Julia and too much music-making.
As John bounces physically and emotionally between the two women, eventually learning what happened years ago in a huge emotional climax, he pursues his growing ambition to form a band. Before long, John is introduced to a baby-faced younger boy who plays guitar left-handed, Paul McCartney (impressive Thomas Brodie Sangster, “Bright Star”), who in turn introduces John to another crack guitarist, George Harrison (Sam Bell).
Poor Ringo Starr has yet to be repped onscreen in a Beatles drama, having no place in this story’s timeframe or in the underrated 1994 “Backbeat” (which covered the Hamburg years). Nor does Starr appear in 1991’s “The Hours and Times,” the 1963-set two-hander about Lennon and Brian Epstein, in which native Liverpudlian Ian Hart definitively incarnated Lennon onscreen as he did in “Backbeat.” Southern-born Johnson’s version here is nowhere near as good; he gets Lennon’s chip-on-the-shoulder ferocity to an extent, and something of his feral sexiness, but not his sharp intelligence and intense charisma, let alone the accent.
Thesping across the board is patchy, with Duff in particular coming across as stagy in the early sections, although she grows more convincing by the end. The brittle and distractingly gorgeous Scott Thomas at first seems wildly miscast as uptight Mimi, but her natural hauteur starts to work for the role, especially in the big showdown scene with Duff’s Julia.
One can only assume Taylor-Wood, who started out as a conceptual artist, was too inexperienced with pro thesps to coax more consistent and coherent perfs. In fact, the pic’s most memorable moments are individual shots rather than scenes, especially when characters are in despair, recalling Taylor-Wood’s recent photo portraits of crying actors. No one shoots red-rimmed eyes congealed with tears and key lights bouncing off corneas better than Taylor-Wood, ably assisted here by ace lenser Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”), who also collaborated on Taylor-Wood short “Love You More.”
Sole tech misstep is the non-source orchestral soundtrack, credited to Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, a largely off-the-shelf-sounding assemblage of piano chords, plangent strings and vaguely electronic noodlings. Elsewhere, craft contributions are as strong as they get in British cinema, achieving an almost glacial level of polish in all areas. Period production design by the redoubtable Alice Normington is spot-on, Julian Day’s costumes subtly enhance character and Lisa Gunning’s editing has both warmth and precision. Indeed, part of the film’s problem is precisely its perfectionism, which eschews the roughness, rawness and originality that made “Control” so much more compelling.