Right off the bat, to calm the nerves of rabid Beatles fans, I will tell you that this is a film about John Lennon at the age of 15. He is not in his 20s and is not yet a member of that famous group. He does meet Paul and George in the film, but it is not a story about his musical career, though music does play a part, rather it is about his early life experiences that went on to shape the man throughout his entire life.
For first time director Sam Taylor-Wood to have chosen to do a film about the adolescent years of the iconic John Lennon was quite a brave thing. Going into the film you had to be wondering if it was the right choice or career suicide. The Beatles and John Lennon are beloved to this day and arguably the most popular band ever in music history. Make a poor film about Lennon and you will be ripped to shreds. A high risk, high reward start to a career.
John Lennon does not have the easiest beginning to his life. Growing up in middle class Liverpool he is taken in by his Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas – The English Patient, I Have Loved You So Long) at the age of five. His mother, the effervescent Julia, has given up John to be raised by her more down-to-earth sister.
Aunt Mimi and Uncle George (David Threlfall – Hot Fuzz, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) have raised and loved John since he was five. His mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff – The Last Station, Notes on a Scandal) and husband (just referred to in the film as Fred) have broken up and she has taken up with another man. Realizing her young boy would need more stability she gives John up to Mimi.
Mimi and Julia could not be more different. Mimi is a disciplinarian, who, though she loves John, has little patience for John's musical leanings. His mother is sunshine and flowers plus she loves the fact that her son is passionate about music.
It is only in his teenage years that a friend informs John that his mother is still living in Liverpool within walking distance of where he lives with his Aunt. John decides to reestablish a relationship with his mother.
This reconciliation between son and mother has the end result of tearing the young man apart. We begin to understand the misgivings that Mimi has about her younger sister. She is a woman who only can relate to men using her sexuality – even her son. The constant push and pull between the woman who raised him and his biological mother is rough on the teenager. This emotional turmoil ends up fueling his artistic side and leads to his meeting Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster – Bright Star, Nanny McPhee) and George Harrison (Sam Bell – first film). The young men form a band they call The Quarrymen – a precursor to The Beatles.
Entertaining, thought provoking and often touching, the film is a good start for director Sam Taylor-Wood. We can all exhale now as the film is a success. Taylor-Wood is intelligent enough to keep away from falling into the trap (as alluring as it must have been) of alluding to the man that John Lennon was to become. She stays mostly in the present, but there is a foundation laid for the bright future of this young man. The film concerns itself with Lennon's teenage life and the social conditions of the town and time he grew up in.
The heart and soul of the film is the triangular relationship between John-Mimi-Julia. Kristen Scott Thomas, an actress I adore and wish would work more, is perfection as the icy aunt who does love her nephew. She, at first glance, just seems like your typical middle aged battleaxe, but the actress brings in different layers allowing us to see her softer and more caring side. A fully fleshed out character in the skillful hands of Scott Thomas. Her character's demeanor is wonderfully juxtaposed against the full of life one of her sister. The two women couldn't be more different.
Aaron Johnson shows he has a bright future in front of him. More handsome than Lennon was he still makes you understand what it was like for this musical icon growing up. Johnson does not stoop to creating a caricature of the famous man, he has created a John that is rebellious, emotional, loyal, torn between the two maternal figures in his life, and fun. It is a mature and layered performance that will win him many fans.
Period dramas are the bread and butter of English cinema. Always have been and always will be. No matter the period of history they do it well. Visually the film is great with the costumes and sets making you feel like you are back in 1950s Liverpool. The colours and clothes are all drab (lots of browns everywhere except Julia's house) despite the fact that this is a good economic period for this part of the world. The cinematography and direction also add to the feeling of authenticity that runs through the film.