To some, Morrissey is a figure who inspires devotion – the musician-poet of outsiders and of those wish the world were a different place. To others though, he’s a man who’s spent the past 35 years whining and becoming increasingly out of touch with life as lived by everyone else (not helped by the messianic adoration he still attracts from those who love him). He’d also probably be the last person to collaborate on a film biopic, so England Is Mine is very much unofficial, picking up Steven Patrick Morrissey’s life in the 70s, before anyone knew who he was. By concentrating on the time before he started collaborating with Johnny Marr, also helps the movie get around the fact that it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for them to get the rights to use any of The Smiths’ music.
Played by Jack Lowden, Morrissey is a young man drifting somewhat aimlessly, writing letters to NME decrying the Manchester music scene and becoming increasingly convinced of his own genius, but afraid to step out and actually do anything that would show that ‘genius’ to other human beings. Stuck in a dead-end job in a dreary city he becomes increasingly depressed about what his life is and what it might be in the future. Then he starts to see there may be a way out as a musician, which initially seems unlikely for the introverted young man.
England Is Mine was always going to have a tough job in trying to please fans while not just becoming an act of benediction to someone who is a very complicated and not always perfect figure. Similarly, it wants to feel worthwhile to non-fans, while not alienating Morrissey lovers. It’s a difficult line to tread, but the movie does it better than might be expected, at least partially due to a very engaging central performance from Jack Lowden.
It’s a role that in less subtle hands could have made Morrissey come across as insufferably smug and arrogant – a man convinced of his own genius while spouting juvenilia – who dismisses others while offering little to the world other than his own sanctimony (at least during the period the film is set in, before he formed The Smiths). Lowden brings out more complexity, allowing the film to explore the mix of hope, nihilism, uncertainty, depression and solipsism of many people’s youth – indeed, it’s not a coincidence that most of Morrissey’s devotees come to love him when they are ‘misunderstood’ teenagers, finding in him an iconoclastic, contrarian artist who speaks to their feelings that the rest of world lives at shallower depths than they do.
The film also becomes an exploration of depression and how difficult it can be to escape. However, there are times when its wit and genuine empathy for its central character butts up against the fact the movie can’t completely ignore that he’s also a bit of an arrogant prig. Similarly, for a film about someone so steadfastly non-conforming, it does lapse into cliché fairly often.
Some may be frustrated by the way it tries to have its cake and eat it in reference to Morrissey’s sexuality, hinting towards attractions to men and women while simultaneously leaving it ill-defined. There is some logic in that, as Morrissey himself has spent most of his life leaving his sexuality ill-defined, hinting at homosexuality in his early lyrics, championing celibacy as part of The Smiths, saying he didn’t believe in labels, revealing relationships with both men and women, and more recently calling himself a ‘humasexual’. However, England Is Mine’s engagement with Morrissey’s sexuality feels like it’s both smug and timid, knowing it can’t completely ignore it, while feeling trapped by the fact that nobody’s really knows the full truth. The problem with that is that it feels like something that’s key to the story being told and who this man is becoming, but the film has no real idea how to address that.
It all adds up to a movie that’s more intriguing than successful, and which is as frustrating as it is illuminating. The cinematography and performances help keep it watchable, and some Morrissey fans will definitely appreciate it, but as it’s more homage than assessment, it never feels like you’ve really learned that much about Morrissey that you couldn’t have worked out from a surface reading of the man.
Overall Verdict: A great performance from Jack Lowden helps bring this pre-Smiths Morrissey biopic to life, although there’s undoubtedly still a better biopic of the man to be made.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac