Young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in post-war 1950s Liverpool is the subject of a tussle between his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his now married mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) who gave him up as a single mum into Mimi's care when he was 5. Yearning for a normal family, John escapes into art and the new music flooding in from the US, starting a band with a group of friends. His fledgling talents find a kindred spirit in the young Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). But just as John's new life begins, the truth about his past is revealed - and is soon followed by a tragedy he would never escape.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Fascinated as we are with the famous - not the least a John Lennon famous - this John Lennon: The Early Years dramatisation is held aloft by its novelty value. If it weren't about John or someone equally famous, it would never make the screen. That's not to deflate the drama of the story, but it's a story that has many echoes; single mum, broken home life, caring auntie.... What differentiates this story is how it dovetails into the life of John Lennon that begins as this film ends.
It's not particularly well told, though, often skipping important little moments -like the gap between him meeting Paul McCartney and Paul playing in his first band - and muddied about the key elements until the third act. Nor can we say the casting takes our breath away with reflections of the early John and Paul. The actors are fine, but they don't quite satisfy that need to connect them to the figures we know from history. It's based on a memoir by Julia Baird, John's half sister, but many scenes are simply imagined, featuring John on his own, or John away from Julia's family circle.
Aaron Johnson is a likeable lad as John Lennon at 17, and his tormented life as a semi-orphan is complicated by a young mum who wants back in to his life with the kind careless abandon that created him in the first place. Anne-Marie Duff is heartbreaking as his mum Julia, while Kristin Scott-Thomas is riveting as the cold-shouldered Mimi who seems to have ice in her veins - until the bubble bursts.
Liverpool in the 50s is carefully recreated, complete with dull grey skies and a dull grey society ... that is soon to be assaulted by rock n'roll and John Lennon's new Liverpool sound.
Review by Louise Keller:
You're going nowhere, John Lennon's headmaster tells him during one of the many times the young hellraiser is reprimanded. There is no question about it, Lennon was a bit of a lad. Because of who he became and the continuing interest in the pop icon, this chapter of his early pre-Beatle years makes for compelling viewing. Based on a memoir by his half sister Julia Baird (Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon), the film establishes the context of Lennon's home life. In particular, the focus is the tumultuous relationship with the two important women in his life - his free-spirited, unstable mother Julia and brittle, barren aunt Mimi who raised him. It is with fascination, curiosity and almost as voyeurs that we engage with the young, enigmatic Lennon as he battles against the odds, the establishment and himself in a bid to find his own direction.
It's the role of a lifetime for 19 year old Aaron Johnson who not only manages to overcome the huge hurdle of our expectations but superbly realises our illusion. It is clear from the beginning that his home life is conflicted. He resents the steely discipline of his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and when he is finally reunited with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), he faces a different kind of heartbreak. At first, they are like best mates and a new world opens up to John when Julia exposes him to the guitar and music.
'I'm going to start a rock 'n roll group and be like Elvis,' he tells her and picks out four of his school pals to be members of the band. It didn't matter that they couldn't play instruments. What mattered was that he chose them. He had a name for them too - The Quarrymen, whose members changed as he is introduced to real musicians, the first of which is Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). Sangster's Paul epitomises the converse of the rebellious John. When they are introduced, John offers him a beer; the earnest, seriously talented Paul asks for tea.
There is just enough music to quench our thirst, but not too much to counter the dramatic arc of the story. After all, the heart of the film lies in the tortuous relationship between Mimi and John, their misunderstandings, conflicts and underlying need for each other. All the performances zing. Duff is especially appealing as the vulnerable Julia, while Scott-Thomas excels in portraying Mimi's steely reserve and resolve. The story ends on an unexpectedly poignant note in the already harmonious score of John Lennon's life.
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NOWHERE BOY (M)
CAST: Kristin Scott-Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Aaron Johnson, Thomas Sangster, David Morrissey, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Bell
PRODUCER: Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader, Douglas Rae
DIRECTOR: Sam Taylor Wood
SCRIPT: Matt Greenhalg (memoir by Julia Baird)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Seamus McGarvey
EDITOR: Lisa Gunning
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2009