Deborah Ross

Dual control | 14 December 2009

Nowhere Boy<br /> 15, Nationwide from 26 December

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Nowhere Boy

15, Nationwide from 26 December

Firstly, the year in review — it was good, thanks — and now on to Nowhere Boy, the surprisingly conventional first feature-length film from visual artist Sam Taylor Wood. It is perfectly accomplished, and pleasing enough, but it’s not going to blow your socks off, even though the combination of Ms Taylor Wood and such a compelling story would give you every reason to think it might. That said, having your socks blown off is rather overrated. Or, as one man told me, ‘My socks blew off in 1976 and I’ve yet to find them. They were nice socks, too.’ So there is something to be said for not having your socks blown off, I suppose.

The story? This is a biopic of the early years of John Lennon, covering his totally weird upbringing. He was brought up by his Aunt Mimi, whom he thought was his mum until his mid-teens, when he discovered that his real mum was actually Mimi’s sister, Julia, who, it turned out, lived nearby. These days, they’d all be on The Jeremy Kyle Show, spewing their guts out, but folks got on with their crazy lunacies — their mishigas, as my old nan would have said — quietly back then. It opens with the familiar guitar twang of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and it is set in 1950s Liverpool, although you never really get a sense of Liverpool at that time. This film is extremely highly coloured — all ruby reds and vivid oranges — giving everything a peculiarly artificial feel. I do not know Ms Taylor Wood, and have never visited her home, but I’m betting it is not all done up in magnolia. She does seem to have a thing for colour. An Education, though, did a much better job with its period feel, and that was very brown. Is brown the key? Don’t ask me. I didn’t go to film school!

The young actor Aaron Johnson plays the teenage Lennon, and has a good stab at it, even if his Liverpool accent goes awol after ten minutes and never returns but, strangely, it scarcely matters, as the real stars of Nowhere Boy are Anne-Marie Duff as Julia and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mimi. Ms Duff has those huge, expressive eyes, while Scott Thomas, who is actually far too posh for the role of working-class Liverpudlian housewife — she sometimes looks as if she has mistakenly wandered in from a stately-home movie set in 1816 — does have the sort of bone structure that is a mesmerising attraction in and of itself. I’m telling you, if you ever get tired of Ms Duff and Ms Scott Thomas then you are tired of life, pretty much.

Now, Mimi and Julia, although sisters, are chalk and cheese, which are quite different, as you will certainly know if you have ever eaten chalk thinking it was cheese. Julia, who may suffer from depressive episodes, is, at this point in her life, all fizzing fun, frivolity and mania. Julia teaches John to play the banjo. Julia introduces John to Elvis and rock’n’roll. Julia is all over John in a rather spooky, sexual, oedipal way. And Mimi? The Tchaikovsky-loving Mimi is uptight and repressed. For most of the time, she sits in an armchair, back straight, and smoking in a pinched, tight way. But, as John ricochets confusedly between the two, we can always sense the softness in Mimi and the fragility in Julia. Scripted by Matt Greenhalgh (who also wrote the Joy Division film Control) he has made the women properly rounded characters.

Why Julia originally relinquished John, and how Mimi nabbed him, is told in a series of flashbacks, some of which are moving, some of which seem clumsily inserted, but the main thing is this: it could be the story of any boy caught in these particular circumstances. We never feel this is the John Lennon who will one day go on to become one of the greatest musicians of all time and who will form one of the greatest bands of all time. This band was called The Beatles. There are the occasional prophetic moments: John cycling past Strawberry Fields; John doodling a walrus in his schoolbook; John encountering Paul McCartney and George Harrison. But they are incidental. We are never shown how this discombobulating, tortured childhood informed him as a creative genius. The film is competent — absolutely — but it isn’t sufficiently stylised to be anything other than yet another kitchen-sink drama, which is why your socks are going to stay firmly put. And now I’m off — hurrah! Although don’t take it personally — so a very Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you all. Next year, by the way, is the year of the tiger, so it’s going to be tough, but we’ll pull through. We always do.