Lennon's on sale again, as David Bowie once sang, and not the least impressive part of Sam Taylor-Wood's debut is that it dares to stand up against two other remarkable films about the most intriguing and antagonising member of the Beatles.
Ian Hart was eerily right as Lennon – twice – in The Hours and Times (1991), an account of a lost holiday he took with Brian Epstein in Barcelona, and then in Backbeat (1994), which recounted the story of his doomed friendship with his fellow art-schooler Stuart Sutcliffe. The bar has been set high.
Nowhere Boy hasn't anything to match Hart's impersonation, but it thrums to a fierce narrative beat and, even more importantly, it feels like something made with love. The screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh (the writer of the Ian Curtis biopic, Control) rewinds to the mid-1950s when Lennon was growing up in leafy Menlove Avenue, Liverpool, with his aunt Mimi, failing at school but just beginning to discover himself as a delinquent and heart-throb. "Yerr a loser!" shouts a girl he has offended, and the happy glint in his eye suggests he might save up that line. Greenhalgh, with heroic discipline, refrains from obvious nods and winks at the future catalogue, though to begin the film with that ominous opening chord from A Hard Day's Night and the sight of young John dashing beneath the portico of St George's Hall couldn't be bolder as a statement of intent.
As adulthood beckons, John, played by the 19-year-old newcomer Aaron Johnson, becomes curious about the mystery surrounding his mother. This would be Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), a lively but volatile woman who was abandoned by Lennon's father and then abandoned in turn her infant son to the care of Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), her older sister. John goes to visit Julia, now settled with a new husband and family, and a connection instantly sparks between them. She teaches him how to play the banjo, and naughtily spells out the secret of rock'n'roll – "It means sex," she tells him, swinging her hips suggestively. Thus begins a tug-of-love between the free-spirited, fragile Julia and the stern, uptight Mimi, an agonising situation from which John would find an escape only in music.
Having slightly dreaded the idea of Taylor-Wood "doing" Lennon, it is only fair to admit that I found almost everything about this portrait of the Beatle as a young man absolutely riveting, from the location work in Calderstones Park (five minutes from where I grew up) and Quarry Bank to the whippet-lean look of 1950s youth and the off-milk pallor of Liverpool light, beautifully caught by the cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey. Almost everything: Johnson is a game performer, has a terrific soulful sexiness, and in the latter stages of the story brilliantly conveys the rapid oscillation between vulnerability and boorishness that would characterise the rest of Lennon's life. But – and it's a heartbreaker – he can't do the accent, the sardonic nasal twang that seems to carry so much of Lennon's personality in it and set him apart even from the other Beatles (he was a few notches up the social scale). The trailer to the film uses Lennon's own voice, as if acknowledging that the original can't be faked.
Johnson has charisma, all the same, and the aggression, though Lennon's (self-confessed) violence towards women is understandably downplayed. There's something exciting about his ambition in forming the skiffle group the Quarrymen – rock'n'roll would follow, catching fire from Elvis – and the potentially awkward scene of his first meeting with the 15-year-old Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) at St Peter's church fête in July 1957 is handled, once again, with commendable restraint. While it's possibly the most famous reported encounter between two strangers since Stanley and Dr Livingstone, there's no nudge to the audience, no electric crackle in the handshake, just a wary sizing up of one another, with most of the suspicion emanating from Lennon: only when he learns that McCartney has lost his mother does his guard drop. The sight of the boys rehearsing together in John's bedroom is deeply touching, perhaps because it's something we have imagined but never seen. I'm not sure Aunt Mimi ever spied McCartney arriving at the front door and shouted, "John, your little friend's here," but the line is too good to leave out.
Given Taylor-Wood's fashionable standing as a photographer, it's surprising how conventionally Nowhere Boy plays within a biopic frame. Maybe too much so; the wildly innovative nature of Lennon's genius finds no corresponding resonance in the film, and its disclosure of the origins of the Mimi-John-Julia arrangement feels like something too obviously cooked up by a screenwriter, however much truth lies therein. But the suddenness of the tragedy that befalls John is compellingly done, and the film, seeking a musical climax, hits on a superb studio performance by the Quarrymen – with George now on board – singing the little-known "In Spite of All the Danger". With its confident harmonies and passionate delivery, it's as close as the film gets to signposting the Beatles (whose name is never mentioned) and perhaps should have been the sign-off scene.
If the film feels a little too indulgent, a little too much in love with the young man, I'd argue that Lennon earned the indulgence, and more than earned the love. This study of a boy damaged by loss yet determined to honour his talent strikes a mighty chord, and marks a hugely promising feature debut.
'Nowhere Boy' is released nationwide 26 December
'Nowhere Boy' is released nationwide 26 December
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