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Nowhere Man?: Lennon Naked (2010) ~ Review

August 28, 2010

Directed by: Edmund Coulthard

Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Christopher Fairbank, Naoko Mori, Claudie Blakley, Rory Kinnear, Michael Colgan, Adrian Bower, Andrew Scott

Screenplay by: Robert Jones

UK; 82 minutes; Colour/ b&w; Certificate: 15


What with the ever increasing deluge of dreck clogging up our telly screens these days, I must admit the BBC4 TV channel has become something of a refuge for me. With its mixture of arts, historical and science programmes, as well as smart original drama, it may just be the best channel around (sad to report, though, it’s only available in the UK and Northern Ireland, you non-home-nations people out there).

So, it was with curiosity and expectation I came upon a repeat the other night of this fictional retelling of John Lennon’s life between the years of 1967 and ’71. This period of his life is, for sure, a big canvas to cover requiring both broad and subtle brushstrokes, but if any TV drama could pull it off, surely it would be one comissioned by BBC4, wouldn’t it?

But did it pull it off? Well, yes and no. For me, what Lennon Naked gets both right and wrong is its attention to, or rather emphasis on, detail – the angel and the devil’s in the detail, if you will. So, first up, the good. The painstaking work that has gone into making the drama feel like it’s right out of the late ’60s and early ’70s is all there – period detail including the fashions, furnishings, vehicles and streetscapes is all present and correct (you really feel like you’re in Lennon’s world, swaggering hippiedom collides with the straight-laced stockbroker London suburbs, where he set up home, or rather mansion, with wife Cynthia and son Julian).

Add to that the casting, Rory Kinnear is pretty much spot on with his restrained, softly spoken Brian Epstein (his early, ’64-set scenes with Lennon nattily filmed in monochrome, reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night), while Claudie Blakley delivers a nicely balanced Cynthia, and Michael Colgan and Adrian Bower convince in believable interpretations of Beatles alumni Derek Taylor and Pete Shotton, respectively.

Moreover, there’s absolutely no doubt that the esteemed acting talent that is Eccleston (former Doctor Who and star of the outstanding Our Friends In The North – the last great British serial drama) relishes getting his teeth stuck into bringing Lennon back to life, warts and all. His performance is at its best when recreating John’s sardonic demeanour, full of customary caustic wit (thanks to writer Robert Jones giving him Lennon-esque dialogue that sounds true to the ear – Fan on the street: “Kiss me, John!”/ Lennon (indicating Brian Epstein): “Kiss ‘im – ‘e’s never been kissed by womankind… or unkind”). The accent too isn’t bad, even if the actor’s own Salford twinge comes out through the scouse once or twice. And, naturally, Eccleston does very well in peeling back the layers of Lennon’s glass onion – bringing out the existential, drug-addled darkness at the heart of the man’s soul that much of the music he produced during this era (especially in his solo material) suggested or even spelt out was there.

However, at the same time, I’d argue that it’s here that this film gets it wrong. And, to be fair, it’s not necessarily Eccleston’s fault. He’s an actor who’s outstanding in expressing angst, it’s just a pity that the production seems intent in pretty much only expressing this. The ’67-’71 period in Lennon’s life was turbulent, of course, there’s a lot of gloom there to draw on: troubled reconnection with his father Freddie (a fine Christopher Fairclough) – around which the drama pivots, leaving his wife and son, drug addiction, ‘primal scream’ therapy and, far from least of all, the break-up of The Beatles. And the drama revels in it all, as Lennon escapes reality in a transcedental-like dip in his swimming pool, lies strung-out in a dingy bathroom’s bath, gets busted for drugs and (apparently) takes the psychological blame for the Fabs’ break-up. Yet, all that surely was only part of the story, wasn’t it?

Sure, Lennon’s meeting and burgeoning relationship with Yoko is shown – indeed, much is given over to it – but it hardly presents this side of the story as the beautiful discovery, nay saving grace, it obviously was for the protagonist. Instead, it goes down the easy route of public perception of the time – the tone of their scenes is together more awkward and freakish than fitting and blissful. Yes, Jonh’s finding Yoko precipitated his divorce from Cynthia (and there’s a strong scene devoted to this), but it was also a huge step for Lennon himself, even if he went through heroin addiction at the same time.

For me, then, this approach is somewhat cynical, let alone unoriginal really, and casts Lennon in the tragic hero role (especially with its emphasis on abandonment by his parents); conveniently completing his story, as it does, at the point when he and Yoko left Britain for New York where their happy years together began and John probably felt at home for the first time.

Fair enough then, this flick doesn’t get all schmaltzy over Imagine and the such like, but with a little more imagination methinks it could have presented its subject in a fairer, more balanced manner than merely the heavily toubled, unpleasant and far from Fab chap it offers us up instead. 

For a brief time, you can watch Lennon Naked on the BBC iplayer (UK and Northern Ireland only) here, or it can be purchased  here.

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