Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Want to know how to tell if your bio-pic is firing on all cylinders? Remove the famous person whose bio it is from the equation. Would the movie work if, instead of being about the celebrity, it were simply the story of Joe Schmo? Would the tale hold you? Would the events on view matter much? Using that criteria, Nowhere Boy, the John Lennon-as-a-teenager movie directed by Sam Taylor Wood and written by Matt Greenhalgh (from the memoir by Julia Baird) rates especially high marks. The fact that it's Lennon's story will of course draw most fans to the film, but they'll stay because the events and characters on screen are presented with strength, intelligence, feeling -- and life. This is one very vivid movie.
As Taylor-Wood's initial full-length film, Nowhere Boy could have fallen prey to first-film-itis: tossing in everything that's on the director's mind, prizing flashy visuals above clear content, and hitting the salient points with more strength than subtlety. (Taylor-Wood might be accused of the latter fault to some extent, but even here, she manages to hold back more often than not.) The director is not fresh out of film school; she's a mature woman who's come into her own an as artist -- in art and photography -- some time back. (See the excellent short piece about her in New York magazine published around the time of the movie’s theatrical release.) This may account for much of the film's success, as well as for its sidestepping some of the potholes of first-filmdom.
The tale told in Nowhere Boy involves a teenager who earlier suffered the loss of both parents, and who will soon lose an important surrogate and then suddenly discover that one of these personages has not been lost at all.
Interestingly enough, music, young Lennon's passion, acts as much as a distraction from some of his sorrows -- past, present and future -- as it does serve as the film's raison d'être. Music is always present but it never overpowers the story or its very lively characters. Nor do the excellent art direction and set design, which capture mid-1950s Britain and the Liverpool area quite sharply. Nowhere Boy lasts but 98 minutes, a short running time for a film about one of the world's most gushed-over celebs (more so perhaps even after his death). Yet there's a modesty about this movie that becomes it well.
What becomes it most, however, is its remarkable cast. In lead actor Aaron Johnson (who makes more than good on the promise he offered in Kick-Ass), the movie has a performer arguably better looking than Lennon ever was but still manages to resemble the musician enough at odd times to carry off the role. More important, Johnson conveys a keen intelligence under his increasing swagger and anger, and so is able to indicate below-the-surface agitation particularly well. Kristin Scott Thomas (in her second bulls-eye performance I've seen her in recently: Leaving being the first) plays Lennon's seemingly cold aunt Mimi to perfection. She let us observe those little changes that occur as a frozen heart begins to thaw.
As Lennon's late-appearing birth mother Julia, it's Anne-Marie Duff, however, who clinches the deal. Duff gives such a generous, warts-and-all performance that she actually walks away with the movie. This is as it should be, for it is her character who commands not just the screen but the very life -- reality and fantasy -- of the Lennon character, once he understands, not simply the identity of this woman, but what this might now mean to him.
Supporting roles are aced by a bevy of fine performers. The always-solid David Morrissey (this guy was even good in Basic Instinct 2) is terrific as Julia's new man, torn between his own desires and his sense of what is right and appropriate, while David Threlfall, with relatively short screen time, registers warmly and strongly as Lennon's uncle George. Good performances from the younger set include those of Thomas Brodie Sangster, (who, in his incipient career, has already run the gamut -- playing young Hitler in a TV movie and now the young Paul McCartney!), Josh Bolt as friend Pete, and in his screen debut, Sam Bell as the young George Harrison.
Extras on the DVD include two decent featurettes, "The Making of Nowhere Boy" and slightly more interestingly, "Nowhere Boy: The Untold Story of John Lennon and the Creation of The Beatles."
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