Nowhere Boy, 95 mins, rated TBA, opens in cinemas 26 December 2009.


(This is my review as published in the Dec 2009 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

After more than 50 years, the Beatles are still going strong. Their albums have recently re-mastered and re-issued, there’s a new computer music-game called “Beatles Rock Band”, and Paul McCartney is starting a new European tour. Now there’s a feature film, Nowhere Boy, about the early years of John Lennon, from the age of 5, until the newly-formed Beatles set off for Hamburg.

The director is Sam Taylor-Wood, better known as a Turner Prize-winning contemporary artist, working mainly in photography and video art. She’s a protégée of the late theatre and film director, Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, 1990, The English Patient, 1996). He produced her first short film, Love You More (2008), which screened at the Cannes Film Festival. She has dedicated Nowhere Boy, her first feature film, to him.

Taylor-Wood’s contemporary art practice is quite cinematic, so it’s not surprising that, encouraged by Minghella, she made the leap to feature films. Her photographs and videos have explored social and psychological aspects of the human condition – often by photographing her subjects so as to place their internal and external selves in conflict. A noted work is her hour-long video of David Beckham – asleep. One of the world’s most photographed athletes and celebrities is filmed doing almost nothing, for an hour.

So is the film successful? It is certainly fascinating, and definitely moving. Taylor-Wood has a riveting story to work with. It points to the complex and wounded genius that Lennon became. Taylor-Wood certainly brings an intimacy and sensitivity to the emotional scenes. And she has a trio of excellent actors in Aaron Johnson as the young Lennon (Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, 2008), the superb Kristin Scott-Thomas (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, 2008) as Aunt Mimi, and as Julia, John’s mum, Anne-Marie Duff (Is Anybody There?, 2008). They all perform brilliantly. But for me the film falls down in its narrative exposition, and to a degree in its production design.

Because Taylor-Wood is a visual artist, my expectations were high. We’ve had brilliant films from contemporary artists in the last couple of years, notably Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007) and Steve McQueen (Hunger, 2008). While Taylor-Wood excels in the intimacy of the close-up, much of the film looks conventional. It is not until well into the movie, in a scene where Lennon learns to play the banjo while everyday life continues around him, that we see some striking visualisation. And Liverpool looks far too jolly and pretty. Taylor-Wood and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey have said that they purposely avoided a “gritty grey documentary style”. But post-war rationing would have still been in effect, times were tough in Britain in the late 50s, and I found the film’s neat, colourful setting and clean, new costumes less than authentic.

For me, there’s also a flaw in the storytelling. Throughout the film we see flashes of John’s dim memories of a traumatic argument taking place when he was about 5 years old. We finally learn the truth of the argument by having the whole thing described in detail by Mimi. I was disappointed that Taylor-Wood couldn’t continue her visual evocation of the past, and fell back on a long speech.

But on the positive side, there are the fun scenes when John gets his band together, first as The Quarrymen, and later as… you know who. The moment when John meets Paul is truly thrilling. The 15-year-old Paul (Thomas Brodie Sangster, last seen in Tristan + Isolde, 2006) is already a musician, and wise beyond his years. John and Paul find that they share a lack in their lives, and they fill that lack with music, and each other. The film supplies intriguing insights into the brilliant musical partnership to come.

Taylor-Wood, 42, has recently become engaged to the film’s star Aaron Johnson, 19. This brings to mind a crack made when rock star Chrissie Hynde married the much older pop legend Ray Davies: “It takes hero worship to a whole new level”.