It’s a funny time for a biopic about Morrissey. A former symbol of youthful angst, isolation, and quiet rebellion, Morrissey is now better known for courting controversy. Like most figures loved by young people, he’s become everything you’d rather avoid. England Is Mine would love to take fans back to a time when you could confess having had a soft spot for The Smiths’ singer without having to explain that you do know he’s a prick, but instead settles for a nostalgic skim through his life before the big time.
Director Mark Gill seems keen to show he’s done his homework and is well aware of Morrissey’s early influences. The paraphernalia of Morrissey’s bedroom, such as a poster of Oscar Wilde, another of James Dean, and a book about the Moors Murders, is pointed out to viewers without subtlety. Unable to use any of The Smiths’ music as an unauthorised biopic, the soundtrack also features a collection of Morrissey’s old favourites, including the likes the New York Dolls, 60’s girl groups, and the warble of Marianne Faithfull.
But even so, England Is Mine seems more a homage to the songs of the Smiths than to the man who sang them. The scenes of songs such as Cemetery Gates and Frankly, Mr Shankly are visited, with some lyrics even appearing in the film’s dialogue. You can’t help but think of the unpretentiousness of a film like Mamma Mia!, which never claimed to be about anything other than nostalgia for the great hits of a popular band, as you hear snippets of The Smiths’ lyrics.
“Emotional turmoil represented repeatedly”
Moments presumably designed to have a deep impact on the young Morrissey only come across as insincere, as not enough time is given to developing them properly. Morrissey’s friend Anji flits out of the film without much notice; a revolutionary Sex Pistols gig that Morrissey attended in 1976 passes by in a blur. Time spent exploring the singer’s struggle with depression is very much style over substance, with emotional turmoil represented repeatedly by the turbid, swirling waters of a river, and a few shots of a bed-ridden lead. The film seems to consider Morrissey as a mere conduit for his lyrics, a collection of inspirations and impersonations, rather than as a real person.
Nevertheless, Jack Lowden should be praised for the performance he gives as Morrissey, as he has obviously worked to impersonate the singer’s mannerisms. Particularly commendable is a scene where Morrissey performs his first gig with the band The Nosebleeds. Lowden clutches the sleeve of his shirt as he sings, arm hung in an awkwardly flamboyant gesture that is only half dancing. You are able to briefly remember that in the days before Morrissey insisted on tearing his shirt off on stage, he did have an uneasy, jaunty charisma.
“Successfully pulls off sardonic humour”
As a coming of age film, England Is Mine successfully pulls off sardonic humour and contains some interesting glimpses of what it means to be an outsider. Morrissey is shown to be both alienated and intrigued by the masculinity of his peers, with his relationships consisting predominantly of women. Walking through an alley at night, it is Anji who protects him; his mother shields him from his father’s demands, and although at ease with friend Linder Sterling, Morrissey cannot easily converse with her male friends or the lads in the office.
Yet, there are inklings of the Morrissey that will become intrigued by skinheads and boxers. Lowden’s eyes seem to catch nervously on the cooler, masculine figures of the film such as guitarist Billy, and in particular, Johnny Marr. Mostly, however, Morrissey’s romantic possibility is played for a laugh. Rather than investigating the isolation of Morrissey as a young man, who described himself in letters as bisexual and hating sex, the film focuses on a few forced dates he has with disdained co-worker Christine.
England Is Mine ends just before Morrissey graduates from the loneliest man in Manchester to one of the scene’s most famous singers – and eventually, perhaps England’s most incorrigible pain in the arse. As a biopic, England Is Mine remains cautiously superficial, without any real insight into the early years of Steven Patrick Morrissey. If you are looking to relive your love of a man who once told the world that it takes guts to be gentle and kind, you might be better listening to any one of The Smiths’ still brilliant albums.
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Images courtesy of Honlodge Productions.