Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Lennon Naked" from 3.7.2010

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2010
The series on Fatherhood on BBC 4 featured "Lennon Naked," a biopic dealing with the life of John Lennon up to 1971. Coherently written by Robert Jones, the film was produced and directed by Edmund Coultard and starred Christopher Ecclestone in the title role.

At 46, Ecclestone could be argued to be too old to play Lennon in his twenties and thirties. For me however his age did not impact upon a brilliant, mesmerising and unforgettable performance. He captured the essence of a charismatic and tortured star and addressed every nuance of a complex character, from a contradictory personality combining acute cynicism with high-minded idealism to his accent, inflection, movement and manner: he simply was John Winston Lennon to the core.

The film was interestingly constructed with black and white contrasted with colour and filmed drama set against contemporary newsreel. Music was judiciously used to reinforce a point, but no attempt was made to cram in as many landmark tunes as Lennon fans in the square states might have preferred. We Will Rock You, it wasn't. Production values were strong, with costumes, locations from Surrey mansions to London basement flats and props such as John's psychodelic Rolls accurate and authentic.

The supporting company was excellent with Naoko Mori, fragile and understated as Yoko and Rory Kinnear exceptional as Brian Epstein, terrified that his cover will be blown with that wide-eyed, rabbit stuck in the headlights expression. Michael Colgan as a louche Derek Taylor and Claudie Blakley as an entirely reasonable but ultimately disposable Cynthia Lennon were also superbly portrayed and utterly convincing. The other Beatles were well and laconically played, capturing the relaxed banter, wit and camaraderie of the band, although Andrew Scott's drawling inflection as Paul was occasionally questionable.

In many ways, the key role other than Lennon was played by Chris Fairbank as Freddie Lennon, his Liverpudlian gobshite father. Perfectly cast, Fairbank conveyed the feckless ex-merchant seaman with unerring accuracy. His face was lined by a million Woodbines and endless Scotches and his feral eyes darted hither and thither like a spiv or petty criminal. He could have been selling watches from the back of his Cortina or a suitcase on the market or serving behind the bar on a ferry out of Birkenhead. He was Jack the lad on the make and entirely without guilt or appreciation of the profound effect of his actions upon his son.

Roles were reversed at one point when Freddie took up with a younger woman and they had a child during the very period when Yoko has miscarried. John was even partly amused by his father's rakishness so late in life. At no point however did we see Freddie come anywhere near understanding the consequences of his actions, let alone taking responsibility for them and trying to undo the harm done.

Reduced to one word, this film is about abandonment. We focus on Lennon's rage and confusion and his struggle to come to terms with one huge watershed in his life recreated evocatively by shaky amateur cine film. To his credit he tried to address his demons and later even underwent primal therapy.

We saw a bright sunny day on the sea front and learned that six year old Lennon was cruelly forced to choose between his father and his mother Julia, accompanied by her new boyfriend. First, he chose his father, but unable to go through with it, ran back to his mother. He returned to Liverpool and was handed over to his Aunt Mimi who effectively brought him up. By his own choice, he managed to lose both mother and father in a single hot afternoon at the seaside and was effectively been abandoned.

The point of this film is that Lennon spent a good part of the rest of his life living with the consequences of this desertion. This was compounded by his bitter disillusionment with the Beatles and the loss in 1967 of Brian Epstein to whom Lennon was so very close and with whom he appeared to have had a special bond. These blows certainly shaped him as a mass of contradictions, as a person and an artist. In consequence, we see a sometimes arrogant and cruel man who could flaunt his infidelities before Cynthia and ruthlessly desert Julian. In contrast, we also observe a vulnerable man capable of great tenderness, as when Yoko is pregnant.

We watch him go on to inflict his own series of abandonments and desertions, dishing out the same treatment to some of his loyal friends from Liverpool, his wife and son, The Beatles themselves and even his country when he left for a self-imposed exile in New York at the end of the film in 1971.

The main visual motif of the film - in addition to John and Yoko's open and vulnerable nudity in their Two Virgins photo shoot - is a child losing grip of his balloon so that it floats away lost into a big blue sky. Echoing this, John and Yoko later symbolically released balloons into the air to open an exhibition together. His childhood bewilderment and loss never really abated. We see Lennon, damaged by his abandonment at six, replicate the behaviour in his own adult life. As is often the case with childhood abuse, the abused becomes the abuser and the painful cycle continues.

This film seems to try to complete only this one part of the Lennon jigsaw. It explains how his childhood abandonment affected him up to 1971. Other parts of the Lennon biographical film canon focus on other elements and relationships: "Nowhere Boy" with mother Julia and Aunt Mimi, "Backbeat" with Stuart Sutcliffe, "The Hours and Times" with Brian Epstein and The Two of Us, Paul McCartney. None of the films including "Lennon Naked" attempts to put together all the parts and complete the puzzle and thus none tells the whole story.

All these perspectives put together might create a picture of the man John came to be. We now know some of what transpired in New York after 1971, the phase of hedonism, rapprochement with Yoko and withdrawal into a happier domestic life which led to a creative renaissance followed by the waste of his tragic early death.

By the end, it appears that many of the specific demons explored in this film may have been conquered and bridges rebuilt with some of those affected along the way. "Lennon Naked" makes an absorbing attempt to explain a significant part of the evolution of a complex man who was so very important to many of us. For that it should be applauded. 

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