A Bit like You & Me: 'Nowhere Boy' & 'Tamara Drewe'
Alleva, Richard, Commonweal
Driving home from a college class every Wednesday night in 1969, a friend and I would listen to his eight-track tape of the Beatles' White Album. Whenever "Julia" came on, I felt bemused by its daringly monotonous tempo, the seesawing melody, and the lyrics, "Julia, Julia, ocean child, calls me/So I sing a song of love, Julia/Julia, sea-shell eyes, windy smile, calls me ..." Was this an earthly lover whom John Lennon mourned or a daydream, a mermaid?
As biographies eventually made clear, Julia was a boy's daydream that became a reality. She was his longed-for but absent mother who gave the five-year-old John to her sister Mimi when Julia's marriage unraveled. Unaware throughout his childhood that Julia was living only a few blocks from his Liverpool neighborhood with a new husband and two young daughters, the teenager John finally found and confronted her. She melted. The intense bond between mother and son aggravated the already existing tensions between Julia and Mimi. This nexus of neediness, resentment, guilt, and joy is the substance of Nowhere Boy a British film written by Matt Greenhalgh, vividly directed by Sam Taylor-Wood (a woman, by the way), and superbly acted by its cast, especially the actresses who play the sisters, Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff.
Though based on fact, the story approaches soap opera with its why-don't-you-love-me-as-much-as-I-love-you recriminations and its juicy disclosures of deep dark family secrets. But Nowhere Boy rises above sudsiness because Mimi and Julia are portrayed not just as squabbling siblings but also as the forces who shaped Lennon's life and art. Mimi is here a champion of British lower-middle-class staunchness, honesty, stoicism, and adherence to duty, but is also an embodiment of that class's narrowness and provinciality. Scott Thomas is one of those actresses to whom tears too easily come--I thought her highly rated performance in I've Loved You So Long clammy rather than moving--but the role of Mimi, an iron lady long before Margaret Thatcher, brings out her gumption and a sort of thin-lipped, acidic humor. "I worry about your sarcasm," she cautions her nephew, and he quickly shoots back that he inherited it from her. In her apparent coldness, Mimi represents much of what the Beatles and "Swinging London" revolted against, but would Lennon have become Lennon without the steel that Mimi put into his spine? (As Lennon, Aaron Johnson suggests a fierce mind whirring behind untrusting eyes.)
But if Mimi was John's superego, his mother was his muse. As red-haired, wide-mouthed Anne-Marie Duff portrays her, Julia is a hipster a decade before England discovered hipsterism. She's also the sort of woman who could give the most mentally robust son an Oedipal complex. Greeting her child on her doorstep after eleven years without communication, she clutches him to her as if he were a box of candy begging to be devoured, kisses his hands and face, calls him "my dream." Dancing to the new American music, she whispers to John, "You know what rock 'n' roll means? Sex." Magnetic though it is, Duff's performance doesn't sentimentalize Julia. Her free-spirit ways are touched by madness.
If the old, dowdy, reliable England of Mimi would later be memorialized by "Eleanor Rigby" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," the rowdiness, the yeah-yeah-yeah of the early songs seems to flow from the energy of Julia. This conceit may be all too schematic for real life, but it works to give Nowhere Boy unity and drive.
In Nowhere Boy the love-struggles are intrafamilial, fierce, primal. In Tamara Drewe, a comedy based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, sexual imbroglio is stirred up by celebrity, financial envy, brand names, fraudulent e-mails, and media hype. We are no longer in the dowdy, postwar Britain of genteel poverty and lingering food rationing that Lennon knew as a child but in the "Cool Britannia" of Tony Blair a few years before the commercial slump. …