There have been a few artists from different media making a name for themselves in the film discipline recently, most notably Steve McQueen with his award-winning feature Hunger.
Later this year we get fashion designer Tom Ford’s directing debut with A Single Man, but this month it is the turn of modern artist Sam Taylor-Wood with her impressively crafted tale of John Lennon’s early years.
If anything, Lennon’s formative years in Liverpool were as full of incident as his later life; he was actually brought up by his rather straight-laced aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), while his exuberant, but mentally fragile, mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) lived around the corner with her new family. Young John (Aaron Johnson) was crushed by the death of his father-figure, Uncle George (David Threlfall), and resented the strict regime Mimi insisted on at home, and he found an escape in the bohemian atmosphere round at Julia’s house. Having been estranged from his mother for years, bonding with her again as a teenager became one of John’s biggest influences, especially her talent for music, a talent she used to teach her son to play the banjo.
It is to Taylor-Wood’s credit that the rather giddy, self-involved nature of the mother and son relationship at the heart of Nowhere Boy is handled not only with aplomb but also with care; all too easily it could have become an over-cooked Oedipus complex, but instead, with great subtlety, Taylor-Wood turns Julia and John into best mates, life loving chums facing a rather po-faced and disapproving world together.
However, as the film progresses it becomes obvious that John’s complex, spiky relationship with aunt Mimi was just as important to his development as that with his mother. It is this triangular axis at the core of the film – between John, Julia and Mimi – that is the most intriguing and also the most successful aspect of the film. Elsewhere, John’s relationships with band members such as Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) are added merely as background noise.
As has been well publicised, Taylor-Wood fell in love (and is to marry) with her leading man during filming and it shows in the finished article. The camera follows John’s every move so diligently (even when his behaviour is thuggish), it is almost as if it wants to devour him. But Aaron Johnson rises to the occasion showing John warts and all – a talented, but sometimes arrogant and selfish character.
However, the most impressive ingredients in the film are the performances from two of Britain’s most talented actresses; Kristin Scott Thomas (all pursed lips and hurt disappointment) and Anne-Marie Duff (loud, bright, breezy and oh-so-brittle) manage to show their characters’ human sides, never letting them slip into caricature.
Elsewhere, the film captures the spirit of the late 50s and the dawn of the rock and roll with much energy and humour making this an entertaining, engaging feature and not just a historical document.