England is Mine Review
Portraying a character as famously (or perhaps infamously?) defiant, inimitable and enigmatic as Morrissey on screen was always likely to rattle a few bones and enflame a few eye brows. Most troublesome is The Smiths’ frontman’s legions of infatuated disciples, of which I am one, who will fight to the very last breath to preserve their leader’s legacy in their own gladioli laden Red Square. The mere appearance of a trailer for Morrissey biopic England is Mine prompted James Maker, a friend from Morrissey’s juvenescence, to brand the yet unseen film “disingenuous and rather insulting”. Maker may well have been official, Bez-style dancer for The Smiths’ first gig, but his assertion the film is “not a biopic, but historical fiction” is misguided. Firstly, Maker hasn’t actually seen the film which renders his criticism a hefty puff of self-indulgence, but, more worrying is his idea that history is fact – a definitive truth.
One of Morrissey’s greatest talents was the ability to foster his very own legacy, to create an entirely subjective universe of historical fiction around his past, present and future. His very own (Penguin Classic!) autobiography is itself a masterfully impressionistic exercise in myth making. Director Mark Gill’s debut feature, England is Mine (named after a lyric from Smith’s song Still Ill and deliciously subversive in Britain’s current climate), succeeds by conjuring its very own historical fiction surrounding a Morrissey still known as Steven from Stretford. The exceptional and ordinary, ambitious and fearful, humorous and despairing collide in a contradictory haze that captures a life in flux. On Accept Yourself, Morrissey laments ‘time is against me now’, a sense of dread that England is Mine captures perfectly.
The usual biopic hones a rags to riches journey to stardom, revelling in a climatic performance or seismic revelation, but England is Mine successfully circumvents convention by focusing on humble beginnings. Perhaps partially driven by circumstance and constraints, England is Mine ruminates on the uncertain limbo preceding success. Morrissey’s frustration is palpable as he wanders the empty fog-draped streets of Manchester and stalks his typewriter round the mustard walls of his drab bedroom. The film builds to a repressed climax, its arc peaking with the follicle transformations astride Morrisey’s head rather than the cliched self-congratulatory fame and fortune. The epitome of Morrissey’s unconventional journey comes in the fact that despite everyone constantly urging Morrissey to seize his future rather than moan and mope (“Doing nothing is too comfortable, doing something is too frightening” Morrissey admits), his break comes courtesy of Johnny Marr fatefully knocking on his door. The great question raised at the end of England is Mine, is what would have become of Morrissey had Marr not appeared that day? It’s a fascinating alternative history to ponder. For me personally, as I’m sure with many others, Morrissey’s paradoxical urge to succeed and crippling inaction certainly struck a chord, pinpointing the pencil thick line between sinking or swimming.
Director Mark Gill leaves his mark subtly, but indelibly on proceedings with a sharp focus on the small, abstract details of Morrissey’s mundane surroundings. The film opens to a disorienting aerial shot of a thrashing waterway, a vortex of frustration and contradicting thoughts, or perhaps the source of a literal escape hinted at by the unmistakeable narration of Morrissey. Gill’s direction constantly takes us out to the periphery of scenes – the hypnotic swirling of a record, the deluge of rain smattering against a window pain, or an excessive close-up of an unappetising dinner – holding on their psychological potency to convey Morrissey’s anguish and strife through purely visual means. The smattering of gigs, including the legendary Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall apparently attended by everyone one from Engels to Ken Barlow, exist in a muffled, blurry haze that leaves Morrissey marooned alone amongst the boisterous crowds. The film’s most spellbinding moment comes when Gill matches the deft handiwork of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing with the piston precise typing of Morrissey on his typewriter, deftly demonstrating the nascent, almost telepathic, synergy burgeoning between the two.
Much has been made of the film’s lack of access to The Smiths’ back catalogue but for a film focused on Morrissey’s early burglary, pre-Smiths, years they seem of little relevance. Additionally, this potential stumbling block blossoms into a glowing opportunity for director Gill to build a thorough insight into Morrissey’s musical taste, flitting between 60s Girl Groups, Liverpudlian rock ‘n’ roller Billy Fury, and the stomping Glam Rock of Roxy Music. Despite the musical no-show, there are plenty of sly nods to The Smiths’ future output for fans to spy. These are most poetically entwined during the duelling one-upmanship of Linder and Morrissey’s plagiarised verses in Southern Cemetery, yet at times these references feel shoehorned into proceedings; the noticeable appearance of a book on the Moors’ Murders along with an extraneous jaunt to the last night at the fair, soundtracked by Spark’s This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.
Jack Lowden, most recently seen dogfighting the Luftwaffe in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, basks in the limelight of being the leading man. Lowden slips seamlessly into a well-worn New York Doll’s t-shirt and those awkward and plain shoes to embody a Morrissey quietly aware of his wordsmith Wildean genius, but too shy to express it. This Morrissey isn’t the fully formed showman that demanded the world’s attention, defined by an iconic singular surname, rather Lowden channels the uncertainty and confusion of teenage angst to present a unique interpretation of a legend in the making. When portraying such an iconic figure it’s always difficult to suspend disbelief, yet Lowden quashes initial reservations and boldly claims Morrissey as his own – triumphantly mimicking that carefully cultivated, yet irrepressibly soft Northern, twang with the aid of a suitable script of wry wit and acerbic sharpness. As with reality, the sole focus on Morrissey stifles the significance of his supporting cast despite some sturdy performances. Friend Linda Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) adds a sparky zest to Morrissey’s dour demeanour, rockin’ Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) stands as a valuable counterpoint to Morrissey’s alterative interests, while a fleeting Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) has that trademark cocksure swagger in abundance.
The film’s biggest disappointment is its sense of scale. While the late 1970s appear faithfully recreated in the two up, two down terraces and retro interiors, the film lacks the vivid potential to fully transport us back through the decades to a Manchester reminiscent of kitchen sink dramas A Taste of Honey or Coronation Street. In contrast, Ian Curtis biopic Control, with its bracing monochromatic vision, offers a powerfully stark and brooding landscape worthy of Joy Division’s industrial shades. For England is Mine, there is a static claustrophobia which, in one sense, mirrors Morrissey’s fettered prospects, but mainly fails to enliven the drama and backdrop, instead reducing some scenes to a theatrical production.
Biopics have rapidly become the most tiresome and tedious of cinematic genres – their Oscar pedigree undesirable bait to accolade hungry hounds – but against the overwhelming odds of disaster England is Mine is a quietly precious achievement. Gill has burrowed deep into the psyche of Steven Patrick Morrissey, holed up in his bedroom acclaiming his own genius, to depict that all too often avoided state of youthful hope and uncertainty – the very core of The Smiths’ brilliance. Avoiding safe, factual imitation, England is Mine punts for interpretation allowing Morrissey’s youth to be an ambiguous project free from the shackles of so-called fact. With Gill’s subtly bold direction and Lowden’s vitally admirable performance, England is Mine pinpoints Morrissey’s extra-ordinary genius and his rather ordinary, universal appeal – it’s enough to make the man himself (or at least Caligula) blush.
8/10 – This Charming Film
N.B. For more musings on The Smiths & Morrissey, here’s an earlier article musing alternative approaches to the Moz biopic