In recent years, it’s become the rule that good films about musicians are formally loopy, while the less interesting ones play it straight. So it’s thumbs up for ‘24 Hour Party People’ and ‘I’m Not There’ and a pleasant shrug for ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Ray’. But ‘Nowhere Boy’ shows no interest in redefining the form: Lennon was a pasty white bloke and so, unlike in Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan film, it’s a pasty white bloke who plays him (the young, brooding Aaron Johnson, an actor who grows on you but is never quite right); the story is chronological; the narrator is reliable. Taylor-Wood’s background might be in video art but her approach to cinema is fundamentally different. She offers a conservative package with the odd radical flourish. Some of her choices, such as following Lennon and a pal as they ride on the top of a bus, are populist, even jarring, and suggest that she may not have fully found her own language on this first attempt.
Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh mostly play it safe, offering an accessible period piece, free of nostalgia and full of key and credible emotional flashpoints. They focus sensitively on relationships, and especially those Lennon had with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), with whom he lived, and his absent mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who came back into his life for the short period in the late 1950s covered by the film. The music and the meeting of the boys who became The Beatles take a back seat to this domestic drama. Even the early bonding of John with a more fresh-faced Paul (Thomas Sangster) is explained by the loss, in one way or another, of their respective mothers. When the only Lennon song in the film – ‘Mother’ – plays over the closing credits, it’s a confirmation of the film’s chief theme: mums and the shadow they cast.
The two key performances come from Scott Thomas and Duff as the two women in Lennon’s life. Scott-Thomas plays Mimi as a prude whose attitude is born of protectiveness rather than instinct. Duff, meanwhile, pulls off the trick of being more likeable but less trustworthy. The most interesting element of the film is Taylor-Wood’s suggestion of a latent sexual chemistry between John and his mother, an idea that rather than feeling wild or gratuitous comes across as a sensible observation about a vulnerable but adventurous adolescent.