I enjoyed Nowhere Boy from start to finish. I found it a provocative film in many ways. It made me think about other films and most of all about how to represent the Northern England of my youth. Something about the film was unsatisfactory, but I find it hard to say what. An obvious starting point might be a comparison with Control, a very similar film also scripted by Matt Greenhalgh. Control struck me instantly as a film of the year, despite its first time director and cast of relative unknowns (apart from Samantha Morton). I’m wondering if Sam Taylor-Wood, herself a first-time feature director, might have chosen the black and white route that Anton Corbijn took? Nowhere Boy is set 20 years earlier than Control and the difficulty in presenting historical views of the North West is perhaps even more evident.
So, how do you represent suburban Liverpool in the late 1950s? The problem for a relatively low budget film is that finding the right locations and period props and costumes just isn’t enough to create the ‘period costume look’. What you end up with is something like a theme park. It looks ‘authentic’ but there are very few people about and it’s generally too clean and tidy to represent that 1950s world. There were one or two moments when I did think of the Terence Davies trilogy. Somehow, he managed to convey Liverpool of the period more effectively by stylising it. Taylor-Wood is an artist with video experience but possibly she hasn’t got the filmic vocabulary yet. Having said that, the production design of the interiors of the houses was terrific and very effective in distinguishing the lower middle-class home of Mimi and the more cluttered working-class home of Julia and Bobby.
Nowhere Boy focuses on the early life of John Lennon. Matt Greenhalgh has clearly messed with the events and dates of Lennon’s childhood to create an effective story. Nothing wrong with that, but since aspects of the story are so well known (e.g. the birth dates of the individual Beatles) it does mean that there is a danger that audiences will be spending time questioning aspects of the narrative instead of focusing on the story events themselves. And it is quite a story. I wonder if it might not have been easier and more effective to create a completely fictitious story about another character who went through the same life experiences without having the constraints of a biopic structure forced onto the script?
Like Control, Nowhere Boy relies to a large extent on the casting of its central character, played here by Aaron Johnson. Johnson is clearly a talented young actor and by the end of the film he had become a convincing John Lennon. The problem is that at the beginning of the film he didn’t work for me as a 16 year-old schoolboy. This isn’t a criticism of his acting as such – simply that he was too muscular and adult-looking (I hasten to add that I haven’t seen pictures of Lennon at 16 – only those of the Quarrymen when he was 17/18). Johnson was actually 18 during filming. 1950s fashions did tend to make some men look older, but Johnson just seems too healthy! As you can see, I’m struggling with concepts of realism and authenticity – but they are set up by the film. I think the problem is compounded because Johnson looks something like Lennon in terms of hair etc., whereas the actors playing McCartney and Harrison do not necessarily have that kind of instant recognition.
For me, Anne-Marie Duffy steals the film as Julia Lennon (the banjo playing was the high point), but Kristin Scott-Thomas, David Morrissey and David Threlfall are also very good. The music is generally excellent. All round then a good effort, but it could have been great with a slightly different ‘look’.
Andrew Higson once coined the a phrase that described the standard shot for the realist dramas of the British New Wave as something like: “the view of our house from the top of the hill”. After seeing Nowhere Boy, I’m wondering if there isn’t an equivalent shot from British movie biopics of the late 1950s. It’s the hero getting on his bike (with drop handlebars) and setting off for grammar school. It occurs at the start of That’ll Be The Day with David Essex and may well have been stolen from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (with Albert Finney) by way of Truffaut in Les Mistons and Jules et Jim.