English art star Sam Taylor-Wood’s oddly straightforward biopic about the juvenile John Lennon concludes with the singer’s haunting, incantatory primal scream, “Mother.” But instead of tying a bow on the film’s portrait of familial abandonment, Lennon’s guttural, air-cleaving quaver puts everything that precedes it to shame.
Lacking the song’s raw emotive power, Taylor-Wood’s debut feature is a rote coming-of-age tableau that churns through stations of anger, inspiration, reconciliation, McCartney and Harrison.
Raised in suburban Liverpool by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), teenage John (Aaron Johnson) discovers that his absent birth mum, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff),
has been raising a separate family right around the corner. Feeling misunderstood in one home and unwanted in the other, John channels frustration through music and flying fists.
Taylor-Wood color-codes a mother-whore tug of war by dressing sexless brunette Scott Thomas in drab brown tones, while the liberated, redheaded Duff dons bright patterned dresses (and smooches her son with wet crimson lips). Meanwhile, dreamboat Johnson is saddled with a character whose every utterance and sartorial choice rings with the promise of legend.
“Why couldn’t God make me Elvis?” the rocker-in-training asks Julia, who teleports an answer from the future: “Because he was saving you for John Lennon.” Yet not even God could save the future Beatle’s adolescent heartbreak from downgrading to a tasteful, toe-tapping period drama.