I don’t get on well with biopics. I don’t like the pre-fab structure that they all seem obliged to follow, and I wince at the dramatic irony of the little moments that wink at you to indicate a shared foreknowledge of what’s going to happen. Particularly in those films that deal with artists, musicians etc., we are offered a series of obstacles to their “becoming” the celebrity we recognise, finding their voice/muse/inspiration through a series of miniature origin stories. The indignities and problems they tackle are set into context by the greatness we know they will go on to achieve – we are expected to be fascinated by John Lennon’s youth not because of what it tells us about Britain in the 1950s and 60s, but because of how it stands in contrast to Lennon the self-possessed megastar adult. There’s a moment at the beginning of Nowhere Boy when a group of schoolchildren are walking to school through the park. There’s a cut to the sign that tells us what we really need to know: STRAWBERRY FIELDS. It’s a heavy-handed, early reminder that this has meaning because it will one day become meaningful. I was also tempted to claw my own flesh every time a moment was designed to gain force from it’s understatement – the casual introduction of Paul McCartney, Kristin Scott Thomas forgetting the name of the new band that will shortly take over the music world.
But Nowhere Boy does have its merits, so it was the second time in a week (after enjoying a Guy Ritchie film) I was won over by something that should have been one of my pet hates. It’s driven by great performances from the leads, which counts for a lot in this sort of thing. Aaron Johnson at first seems to be struggling to swallow his own scouse accent, but the affectation of a voice and mannerisms is cannily turned into one of the key points of Lennon’s character, as he picks up a voice from Elvis’ spasming drawl and swagger. It’s hugely impressive that bits of Lennon come into focus gradually, almost unnoticed, sometimes pointing up the influences that change his look, walk and talk. Kristin Scott Thomas now seems to be working the circuit of sallow, fist-tight spinsters, but she’s got it down to a fine art, knowing exactly when to release little packages of emotional mask-slippage that stop her from becoming a Cruella-Devilled battle-axe. I also knew very little about this particular story of Lennon’s wrenching oscillation between the strictures of life with his uptight aunt and the fairground eccentricities of his estranged mother; it’s a set-up that comes pre-packed with drama, tension, a cut above the usual rebellious teen angst.
There was something else about this film that had made me wary, and that’s my lack of interest in the work of director Sam Taylor-Wood. Her art has been defined by her preoccupation with her celebrity friends, and her endowment of her own body with preternatural grace, in a series that showed her apparently suspended in the air, not through the careful co-ordination of physical energy and photographic opportunism, but through that most soulless and mundane of tactics, digital wire removal. If you can afford CGI, you can make your body do just about anything, empowering it through software rather than physicality.
Compare this, for instance, to how Gillian Wearing uses video and photography to explore, rather than finesse, her own physical anxieties and timidity. When she used intricate prosthetic make-up to pose as a self-portrait of herself aged three, the special effect doesn’t disappear from view, but instead stays as part of the image’s complex engagement with a camera’s historical powers of representation: we also have to question who we’re looking at, and how she must feel when she looks at this image. How do photographs help us to commune with earlier versions of our selves? I find it far more affecting than, say, Taylor Wood’s ‘Crying Men’ series – is it noteworthy because it shows authentic suffering, or because it’s a bunch of hunky movie stars (Daniel Craig, Brad Pitt, Jude Law etc.) doing the crying? It’s supposed to reveal a different side of them, and raise questions about whether or not it’s fake, but what’s the difference between their crying in these photos, and the kinds of emotions they’re paid to affect on screen every day?
Taylor-Wood doesn’t bring an awful lot of “artist” baggage to the film. There’s no formal experimentation with the medium, just a tidy, respectful conformity to genre and drama. That’s a shame, in a way, especially since the success of this, and Steve McQueen’s far more daring Hunger has led the UK Film Council to ring-fence a £15m fund to help artists who want to move into film. Nice idea if it means injecting some vigour and lateral-thinking into the industry, but not if it means assimilating artistic sensibilities to the usual order of things. Gillian Wearing and the Chapman Brothers are near the front of the queue for the next lot of cash.
Something else occurred to me while I was watching Nowhere Boy: after An Education and Fish Tank, this is the third British film I’ve seen this year about teenage angst in which a devastating family secret is living just around the corner. I’m not sure that there’s any connection beyond a coincidence of plot devices, since the other two films make a much more interesting stab at dissecting issues of class and social inequality through the insinuation of a rogue element into the family unit. I’ll give it some more thought, perhaps with some help from any readers who might be able to offer some views on why this should be such a prevalent dramatic motif all of a sudden. It’s certainly a convenient way of showing vast chasms of difference in status to be socially constructed, spatially close but ideologically distant.