Film Review: England Is Mine

The Morrissey character in England Is Mine will irritate many viewers.

Ok – let’s face it, that’s not surprising. It’s hard to think of any figure in music that rubs more people the wrong way. In many cases, that is the consequence of Moz’s increasingly erratic, attention-seeking, poorly-considered outbursts of recent years – an understandable reaction. But for many, especially of a certain age, they always did feel this way about the guy, and that is the point – The Smiths were never supposed to be universal. Their stories are of the plight of the outsider; the socially detached; the inwardly curious but outwardly hesitant; the quietly defiant; those who refuse, as one character in the film bemoans, to “be more like everyone else”. They possess a sense of humour familiar to many an introvert – their own private genius, doomed never to be put to the test. They were and are for the people who do not express every impulse, choosing instead to hold them in and cultivate them, willing each kneejerk reaction to blossom into something more beautiful.

It’s what makes the enormous success of the band so surprising, nay suspicious, and ultimately one assumes a source of immense frustration for the man himself. Ubiquity is an inevitable side effect of their success, a sort of unstoppable post-partum momentum, and thanks to the way we now consume our music, their reach is likely to continue to keep stretching for the foreseeable future. Such is the exponential growth that there are now more passive fans of the band than devotees. In 2017, England Is Mine may find that this larger group is now the audience for the film – and if that is the case, many will come away disappointed, or worse, frustrated.

But this is a film that returns The Smiths to their original target audience – the band of malcontents and outcasts that will see on screen at least some interpretation of their own post-adolescent, pre-settled-place-in-the-world selves. The experiences related by Morrissey’s early lyrics may be crushingly familiar to a great many people, but not the majority. In hindsight, few such successful bands before them had defined themselves as telling the stories of only a subset of their potential audience. So, a level of emotional investment in the real-life young Morrissey is probably required going into the film in order to persevere with, much less enjoy, the company of the film’s depiction of him. Heed this warning – if that is not you, you will struggle with England Is Mine.

The film tells the story of Morrissey’s formative years, from 1976 to 1982 – a masterstroke. For many, the period of their life that The Smiths’ music depicts is no more than a phase – it was for Morrissey, after all. We hate it when our music heroes become successful, so the message of this particular story ceases to be relevant at the moment that Morrissey’s illusions start to become reality. One of the film’s smartest moves, therefore, is for its narrative to end shortly after the famed first meeting with Johnny Marr. By presenting this section of the life of the man, it could still be any of us. To represent the success on screen would be to put a barrier between audience and character – we KNOW it worked out, just show us the struggle. It works out nicely for the film, which was not granted the rights to the use of any of The Smiths’ music. By telling the story this way, the music is not needed – indeed, it would have been strange to have it. The use of Morrissey’s real poetry and writing from the period more than suffices.

So, the film has been lovingly made for the people whose lives have been touched by Morrissey and Marr’s five year golden spell. It is not the joyous ride of other similar musical biopics – this has none of the anarchic fun of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People nor the abandon of the vastly underrated Undertones film Good Vibrations. It is much closer in tone to Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, the story of the young John Lennon, or of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine. That said, the clichés of the rockumentary are not entirely absent. With varying grades of inevitability, there are contrived moments where the screenwriters could not resist inventing scenarios that would serve as future lyrical inspirations – the meeting by the cemetery gates, the jobsworth boss telling him he doesn’t “owe him a living”. All of the essential Moz heroes are ticked off too: Patti Smith, James Dean, David Bowie, Oscar Wilde, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, The Shangri-La’s, but who’s complaining. In a delightfully self-referential historical twist that one imagines might make the real Morrissey smirk, the film also shares a cinematographer with 1980’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Malcolm McLaren’s self-serving, narrative-manipulating tale of the Sex Pistols’ rise and fall.

Jack Lowden, a Scot in real life, manages to imbue our hero with as much empathy as possible, focusing in on the recognisable Moz mannerisms as he grows older in the film’s timeline. The most perceptive move from co-writer and first-time director Mark Gill is his decision to show Morrissey as being surrounded by supportive and empowering women – his one true early confidant Anji Hardy; his punk artist inspiration Linder Sterling, the only one who knew how to coax the artist out of the man; and most affecting of all, his mother, who via tantalising glimpses we are shown was probably the one who started him on his artistic quest in the first place. There are admirable cinematic flourishes too, most brilliantly the sequence at the Pistols’ iconic Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in 1976, which we are led to believe Morrissey sees through the prism of George Formby of all things, as revealing an insight into the real man as could possibly be made.

In short, if you find Morrissey to be unbearable, this film may be unlikely to change your mind. But if you are strangely obsessed with him, contradictions and all, and his work as a young man inspired you, then ‘England Is Mine’ will hit a sweet spot. It’s time the tale were told.

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