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LFF Closing Night Review - Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

ARTIST turned director Sam Taylor-Wood has a lot to live up to with her directorial debut, Nowhere Boy.

Firstly, it recalls the early years of one of Britain’s cultural icons, John Lennon. Secondly, she’s following in the acclaimed footsteps of other artists-turned-filmmakers, such as Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell & The Butterfly). And thirdly, having been picked to close the 53rd London Film Festival, she’s occupying a slot that was last year populated so emphatically by Slumdog Millionaire.

It’s credit to her, then, that Nowhere Boy is a success… Not as emphatic as Slumdog, perhaps, nor as stylistic as Hunger. But a competent debut that delivers rich emotional rewards nonetheless.

What’s more, awards could be beckoning for some of the acting on show – as the film is anchored by two exceptional performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Based on Julia Baird’s Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon, the film takes place in Liverpool in 1955 as 15-year-old John Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) takes the first tentative steps towards the huge future that awaits him.

Rebellious and not particularly interested in education, Lennon lives with his strict Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and his beloved uncle… until the death of the latter guardian rocks him to his core.

Shaken by the tragedy, Lennon is moved to reflect on the various family secrets that may hold the key to his real identity, and is reunited with his long-lost mother Julia (Duff), an emotional rollercoaster of a woman who encourages his ambition and introduces him to rock ‘n’ roll.

At first smitten by the new opportunity afforded by his mum, John eventually grows sceptical of her and – after being suspended from school and deciding to form his own band – struggles to juggle his feelings both for Julia and for Mimi, who is having difficulties of her own keeping up with John’s sardonic wit and cavalier lifestyle.

Matt (Control) Greenhalgh’s script creates a heady brew of family turmoil, coming-of-age angst and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion that combines to create a well-worn but emotionally engaging story.

The sense of period and musical revolution is well captured both in look and soundtrack and frequently gives the film an energy lacking in some of the early family scenes.

But while Johnson is OK as John Lennon and still a star in the making, the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting comes from the two women in his life – and it’s here that audiences will reap the biggest rewards.

Duff is excellent as the mixed-up Julia… vivacious and flirty one minute, insecure and on the verge of a breakdown the next. She’s an unpredictable force of nature – encouraging and destructive, yet utterly absorbing to watch.

Scott, on the other hand, riffs on her familiar stiff-upper lip coldness to slowly reveal a fiercely protective woman who is every bit as emotionally fragile as her sister.

The latter scenes between all three reverberate with genuine intensity and are among the finest the film has to offer.

It’s during these moments that audiences gain a greater insight into Lennon’s persona, while possibly appreciating the complexity and feeling that went into much of his songwriting.

Strong support comes throughout from the likes of David Morrissey and Thomas Sangster – the latter working well with Johnson as Paul McCartney.

Taylor-Wood, for her part, eschews any of the flashy devices employed by her fellow artists in their film debuts, opting instead for a more conventional approach to storytelling. But it suits the film well and plays to the strengths of its performers.

The result, while predictable in places and borderline formulaic for the coming-of-age genre, is heartfelt, engaging and a success for its director and performers – not to mention the closing night of the London Film Festival.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 95mins
UK Release Date: December 25, 2009