What you make of Yesterday will largely depend on how willing you are to buy into the film’s central premise. It’s a clever, if odd, little idea — following a global power cut, and being hit by a bus as he cycles home from another unsuccessful gig, singer Jack (Himesh Patel) can remember the entire Beatles songbook, but beyond that, nobody else can remember a single song — there is no trace of the band, not even on Google.
Buy into this, and you’re on to a winner. Yesterday is a Richard Curtis film, so the script is sharp, witty, clever and properly funny. It’s also a Danny Boyle film, which means that it’s tightly directed. Patel as Jack, wide-eyed and ingenuous as he starts performing Beatles classics to people who have no knowledge of them, and begins to find incredible fame as a result, is a joy to watch. And Lily James, who has struggled to carry films like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, plays Ellie, the — well, it is a Richard Curtis film — obligatory love interest, with just the right amount of half-hidden hope.
The film is littered with delightful detail, with carefully-crafted scenes that you’d be a cold-hearted person indeed to fail to smile, or laugh, or possibly even cry, at. When Jack first tries to sketch out Let It Be to his parents (a quite wonderful, understated, but very funny, turn from Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal), the result is an perfectly-created comic scene that shows how deftly Curtis can write even his minor characters. When Jack finally performs to a home crowd, the anguish in his reading of Help! is quite extraordinary. And Kate McKinnon’s Debra, the American manager who takes over from Ellie as Jack’s handler (and if you can’t see where that’s headed, you really haven’t seen a Richard Curtis film before), is a pleasingly barking bit of spice to add to an otherwise terribly English (again, Curtis…) film.
I do, still, have reservations about Ed Sheeran. He was, obviously, very out of place in Game Of Thrones, a show not known for its reliance on star cameos. He’s quite adequate as himself in Yesterday, and he has a rather larger role than the trailer might suggest, playing himself, but, surrounded by acting talent like Patel and James and Joel Fry as Rocky (an actual Game Of Thrones star), his shortcomings are apparent. While there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s simply not quite on the same level as the proper actors he finds himself sharing a screen with. Patel’s Jack is a star-struck, out-of-his-depth mess of insecurity and astonishment who slowly grows in confidence while at the same time knowing his success isn’t quite deserved; James’ Ellie is more than the typical Curtis wannabe-love interest; McKinnon’s Debra is, well, McKinnon doing what she does best, just dialled down a notch or two because this is, still, a terribly English film. But Sheeran’s Sheeran is, ultimately, just Ed Sheeran playing himself, a perfectly likeable performance, but ultimately lacking depth. Which, come to think of it, could be a metaphor for something else…
I don’t know what Scousers will make of this film. The city’s mythology for the last sixty years has revolved around a band that split up fifty years ago; to have them written out of history and then their music handed to a *shudder* southerner must really grate. The scenes shot in Liverpool carefully avoid any Beatles references, which cannot have been easy to film; the city’s airport, however, is of course renamed. And while this might sound like anti-scouse snark, why not? Perhaps the snarkiest line in the film will make Mancs watching it flinch, and then say “Aye, fair enough.”