Considering it is a new year, it can mean one thing. Award Season is upon us. With the Film Critics awards behind us and the BAFTAs ahead along with the main event of The Academy Awards themselves, we set out to look at a film that was hyped as a British contender to do well. Having seen it first at the London Film Festival, and now out in cinemas, Danielle Clark and Eoin Mason give a retrospective and say what they think the film’s chances actually are.
In theory, dramatizing the formative years of John Lennon’s life sounds like a smart idea. We’ve been served some delicious music biographies in recent years: Ray, Walk the Line, Beyond the Sea to name but a few. Yet, just minutes after the first act, one gets a sinking feeling that there may not be quite enough emotional punch and guts to make it to the end of the running time. Trust your instincts – because you are correct. Why? Because director Sam Taylor Wood lazily strains every drop of the soggy-‘apparently moving’-pulp out of the complex and highly charged melodramatic relationship that existed between Lennon (Aaron Johnson), his conservative but ultimately loving aunt Mimi Smith (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his free-spirited mother Julia Lennon (Anne-Marie Duff).
Considering Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was last years closing film at the London Film Festival – Wood’s drippy debut feature Nowhere Boys is a definite let down. The film sees a teenage Lennon living with his aunt Mimi and Uncle George (David Threlfall). Everything is going swimmingly-50s-swell until the sudden death of Uncle George. The man who was not only Lennon’s father figure but his inspiration and confidant. It is this paralyzing loss that leads Lennon to rebel, changing from typical teen to young rocker. He forms his band the Quarreymen – band members include Paul McCartney (Love Actually(s) Thomas Sangster, looking very grown up) and George Harrison (Sam Bell) – and slips into a James Dean-esque look.
In the film, Lennon – played so so by young rising star Aaron Johnson, becomes a somewhat unpleasant character. It would seem that Johnson has replaced the required cocksure charm with bloodless haughtiness. This is a shame becuase a beter actor coud of perhaps carried this film to greater heights. If there should be an Oscar nod heading this way it will most definitely have Anne-Marie Duff’s name written all over it. Duff plays Lennon’s mother, a desperately destructive figure who gave up Lennon when he was a little boy. And she does this with vitality and vulnerability.
Unfortunately, Sam Taylor Wood manages the material by reversing into every biopic cliché at five mph. I expected a lot more from one of our ‘Young British Artist(s)’. Veering away from any risks, Wood sticks to the conventional, albeit scenic route. The film is saved in part by Wood’s choice in filling her cast bill with an amazing array of English talent – Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff and Thomas Sangster being particularly good.
Lennon’s early years provides a less-than-perfect template for a feature biopic because though Lennon endured a somewhat distressing childhood, it is a story that could have been nicely compressed into a thirty minute first act. For all the injected emotional derring-do, the final product looks staid and tastes like tepid tap water. Something even hard-line Beatle fans may not appreciate.
What felt surreal about seeing Nowhere Boy with Danielle was what happened when we came out. That time last year, we both were seeing W., Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic, and we both came out with very mixed opinions. Whilst I enjoyed it for the pure acting talent (still think Richard Dreyfuss was screwed out of a Best Supporting Actor nod for his Dick Cheney), Danielle didn’t much like it. When we both came out of Nowhere Boy, it surprised me how much in agreement we were about it. We both weren’t impressed.
In a way, it’s a shame. Nowhere Boy should have been the definitive end to a year of growing Beatles interest. In between the album re-releases in Mono and Stereo and Beatles Rock Band, the Fab Four were back in the spotlight where they belonged. John Lennon being the most iconic member of the group, it made sense to focus the film on his life story and how he got from childhood in Liverpool to one of the pioneers of one of the most influential groups in music history.
As mentioned, Aaron Johnson (who will play the main role in this summer’s Kick Ass) takes the role of John Lennon. What stuck out about me playing Lennon was that he was doing a good impression. He had the voice down, the mannerisms, almost everything. At the same time, it was just that. An Impression. Whilst he tried his best to do everything right, he never quite got the character. He was on the brink of becoming John, but he never reached that peak to make the biopic work.
But whilst Aaron Johnson is merely a part of the film’s weakness, the real problem comes in the form of the overall story. In the easiest way possible, it’s unimpressive. It is not as though John Lennon did not have a difficult childhood, he did. But what should feel like a flowing story leading to a solid conclusion feels more like a line of plot points that fall into one place that rather then feeling like intertwine, feel thrown together and set off like lighters on a box of fireworks. The other problem is something I agreed with Danielle with. The film feels like it’s ticking boxes. The main protagonist being a troublesome schoolboy who drank and had sex would feel cliche in a movie not based on these things, but in parts they are the fundamental story blocks which doesn’t really give you a sense of Lennon as much as it gives you a sense of the time period that he was alive for.
Having said this, after the scene’s conclusion, the ending scenes are well done and show the strength of the project. Some of this is placed on director Sam Taylor Wood, but this is mostly placed on the performances of Kirsten Scott Thomas and Anne Marie Duff. Me and Danielle debated about who deserves a chance for Best Supporting Actress more, whether it would be Kirsten’s Mimi (My Pick) or Anne’s Julia (Danni’s pick), but if either one gets there I won’t have any reservations. These two are the main strength of the film and without them, I hardly think the film would be noticeable at all and make the final scenes of the film all the more gripping with how they are affected by events that transpire.
Also, the scenes with John learning the ukulele for the first time was the singular scene that stood out when I left the cinema and how well that was crafted to suit John but also the length of time it took for him to perfect it as an instrument. It was a stand out moment and shows what Taylor Wood is capable of doing and it is a shame the film does not follow suit in the same way.
If I had seen this on television on a quiet Sunday night, I would feel satisfied with the content and what I got out of watching it. The problem is, this is a motion picture and intended to be a British hope for the Oscars. Unfortunately, it does not live up to the standards set before it and, like Danielle said, not even Beatles enthusiasts would get the satisfaction they would want from it. You’re better off waiting for Christopher Eccleston playing John Lennon in an upcoming BBC4 drama which promises to cover the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein as well as meeting Yoko Ono and their impact on Lennon’s life, which I am sure will give Beatles fans and biopic fans alike something to look forward to.
Nowhere Boy is in cinemas now.