Danny Boyle is a director with a bizarrely diverse filmography. Starting with the black humour and aggression of movies like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, he eventually moved into more crowd-pleasing work like his Oscar-winning (though now often maligned) Slumdog Millionaire, and the biopic Steve Jobs. This isn’t to say he doesn’t have certain hallmarks; an optimistic humanism is present in even the bleakest of his films, and he is consistently critical of the systems that allow injustices ranging from the lack of help for working-class heroin addicts in Scotland to the abused children living in slums in India. So his collaboration with Richard Curtis, king of the heartfelt British romcom, is less of a strange pairing than it may initially seem, particularly in the context of the desperately flawed, but endlessly hopeful Yesterday.
Without immediately picking up one of the tempting loose threads and insistently unraveling the whole story, please allow me to explain the central conceit of Yesterday: after a worldwide blackout, struggling musician Jack Malik finds that he is the only person in the world to remember the existence of, amongst other things, The Beatles. After the initial confusion and existential fear pass, he proceeds to start passing off their songs as his own, achieving unprecedented fame and fortune in the process. But honestly, that really isn’t the point of this movie – it isn’t trying to be Rocketman or Bohemian Rhapsody (thank God) in scale. Instead, it essentially focuses on the central relationship between Jack and his lifelong friend Ellie, and the ensuing will they won’t they.
Curtis isn’t breaking much new ground with this plot, but the sweetly intelligent and frequently funny script, along with Boyle’s bold direction, help to elevate it beyond a familiar romance. Sweeping yet grounded shots of the English countryside contrast with Boyle’s off-kilter way of shooting LA through Dutch angles and a confusing spatial continuity, heightening the ordinariness of Jack’s homeland and suggesting the cliched but somewhat truthful view of corporate America as hollow and superficial. It’s these critiques of capitalism that helped the film work better for me; the irony of the record company wanting to name Jack’s ‘new’ album ‘One Man Only’ perfectly highlights the correlation between individualism and self-delusion.
But as wonderfully daring as Boyle’s style is, what truly keeps the film afloat is the aforementioned relationship between Himesh Patel’s Jack and Lily James’ Ellie. The latter resembles a 60s model, embodying all the effervescence and sweetness of the girls The Beatles sang about so often, yet maintaining a timid lameness that makes her character more down to Earth and believable. Patel essentially plays the straight man to the rest of the world here, operating on a higher level of awareness throughout most of the runtime, but his grouchiness and lack of self-belief were frankly refreshing after seeing so many films recently that centre around some Godlike musical figure. He also manages to get in quite a few laughs, especially his relatable reactions to some of the bizarre omissions in this new reality. When together, she brightens his dour outlook, but stands on her own as a character, existing for herself rather than purely for his benefit – she shows interest in other men, has a career of her own, and isn’t willing to give up her own life in pursuit of his dream.
If you’re the type of CinemaSins viewer to allow gaps in narrative logic to entirely ruin your experience watching a film, then Yesterday absolutely isn’t for you. If you’re expecting to see the meteoric rise of a legend, then you may be somewhat disappointed. But if you just want to go and see a nice movie that revels in the ordinary and has a genuine belief in the ultimate goodness of people, then I think you’ll get a fair bit out of Boyle and Curtis’ latest achievement.