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, seashell 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. In this world novelists may become (B list) celebrities, but rock stars are gods. A fifteen-year-old may fantasize about making love with her favorite band’s drummer, but the dream must include the right products: a Prada bra and Chanel perfume for her and Calvin Klein boxer shorts on him. In a way, this is a world that Lennon and the Beatles unintentionally helped to create and that he deplored when he said that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus, a warning that idiots mistook as blasphemy.

The setting is a bucolic writers’ colony just outside a village. It’s financed by the successful mystery novelist Nicholas Hardiment, and run by his wife Beth, a born nurturer who cossets every writer on the premise, especially her unfaithful husband, with delicious food, sound advice, and a tranquil atmosphere. Tranquil, that is, until local girl Tamara Drewe returns home after acquiring a surgically perfected nose and a spot of fame by writing a Sex and the City–type newspaper column. Tamara proceeds to renovate her recently deceased mother’s house, shack up with the aforesaid rock drummer (thus fatefully incurring the wrath of his fifteen-year-old fan), and arouse every other male libido within voyeuristic distance. The philandering Nick, the frustrated American academic Glen, and the local farmer and handyman Andy all lust after her, yet what emerges from all this isn’t cheesy sex farce but a keenly observant social comedy about self--deception, snobbery, celebrity worship, the deflation of rural satisfactions in the face of urban allure (the village kids despise their homes after reading celeb magazines), and the one-upmanship always rife within the fraternity (hah!) of writers. (Glen the academic envies Nick’s bank account, while the mystery writer feels threatened by Glen’s putative intellectual loftiness. The two unite only in despising the rocker bedding Tamara.) This comedy is incisive, yes, even tart, yet it’s also generous and often poignant. Though without a whisper of spirituality, it manages to skewer sins while loving its many sinners (or at least reveling in their absurdities).

Scriptwriter Moira Buffini has shrewdly rearranged some of the book’s episodes and nicely rounded off some relationships that Simmonds left hanging, but she also has lifted some of Simmonds’s best dialogue right off the page. (Fending off his wife’s denunciation of his adulteries, Nick warns her, “Keep your voice down. We’re surrounded by novelists!”) But the film’s greatest strength is in Stephen Frears’s staging: character details so delectable and so economically achieved that you have to see the movie twice to savor them. A few examples: There’s the way Tamara lightly, perhaps unconsciously, touches her newly bobbed nose as the retreat’s males hover around her. This woman is auditioning her beauty and is still nervous about it. When the Hardiments brawl in plain view of the dining writers, the academic lowers his eyes in embarrassment while the others, story-hungry novelists all, crane their heads to take in the blowup. And when the rocker, Ben, truculently accompanying Tamara to a book signing, enters the local bookshop with its rather tweedy patrons, he takes on the walk of a gunfighter entering a saloon full of enemies.

Except for Dominic Cooper (Willoughby in Masterpiece Theatre’s Sense and Sensibility) as Ben and Gemma Arterton (the Bond girl of Quantum of Solace) as Tamara, the cast was unfamiliar to me, and this made me sad. In the 1960s and ’70s I could name dozens of British actors shuttling between England and the United States as they alternated between stage and film work, but nowadays those Brits who don’t go Hollywood employ their talents in stage and British TV work, most of which never makes its way to this side of the Atlantic. The perfection of Tamara’s ensemble acting made me wonder about the many performances that led up to it, performances I will probably never see.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: View Contents
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