The music biopic can always be relied on for one thing: showing us the tortured genius behind a beloved icon, reinforcing the unique space they hold in music history. Music biopics love to double down on the flaws of their real life inspirations, yet sill ensure they remain empathetic enough to remind you just why they have occupied stardom for so long. England is Mine, director Mark Gill’s biopic on Morrisey’s pre-Smiths years, is the rare music biopic that aims to withhold his actual singing and songwriting talent as much as it possibly can. Instead, we are treated to 90 minutes in the company of an irritatingly pseudo-intellectual misanthrope- and bizarrely, presenting a music icon in this light feels more palpable than suggesting Morrissey was anything other than a lifelong irritant to everybody in his orbit.
England Is Mine; dir.: Mark Gill; UK 2017, 94 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★/5
The film is set in 1976, during Morrissey’s later teenage years in Manchester. With a penchant for writing caustic letters to the NME and believing that he is an “undiscovered genius”, Stephen Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) is an utterly insufferable individual. He searches for band members to start a group with, then gets defeated by a social awkwardness that stops him from even speaking to them. He has a job where he openly stresses his dislike for his co-workers, through the form of self aggrandising poetry he keeps on his person at all times. Despite being a singer who would go on to have a hit single with “This Charming Man” eight years later, he is completely and utterly charmless- and mercifully, the film’s masterstroke is that it never tries to convince us otherwise. It’s a tiny narrative innovation that helps breathe life in to an overly familiar musician origin story.
In the lead role, Lowden is terrific, perfecting the balance between self loving and self loathing that is so inherent in Morrissey’s persona. In particular, he’s pretty adept at portraying the character as suffering from a crippling shyness- something that couldn’t be further juxtaposed from the outspoken pop star that would emerge all these years later. The decision in the screenplay by Mark Gill and William Thacker to emphasise all of the characters’ negative attributes is also useful to remind audiences about the irritating persona Morrissey would later adopt. Here, he gains a reputation from merely bad mouthing the Manchester music scene. In real life, he’s slowly transformed in to the racist uncle at a family get together, taking every opportunity to praise Nigel Farage and (just a few weeks after the release of this biopic in cinemas) waxing lyrical onstage as to why a staunchly anti-Islam candidate for the UKIP leadership, whom he greatly admired, didn’t get the job. Without the context of the last 25 years of insufferable Morrissey quotes to include in this period biopic, Gill has still made sure we never begin to assume he’s a flawless musical genius whose flaws can easily be looked past.
Gill is also pretty skilled at creating an oppressive atmosphere from Morrissey’s perspective, capturing a sense of teenage alienation that he would later rise to stardom writing songs about. From the sight of Lowden skulking in corners of nightclubs and hanging by the bar on his own during gigs, observing his own reflection like it’s an out of body experience, we get a visual representation of the very displacement that would go on to inspire the best songs by The Smiths. Not least How Soon is Now, with its famous line capturing the lonely nightclub experience; “So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home and you cry and you want to die”. For some of the most hardcore Smiths fans, these visual illusions to famous lyrics Morrissey would go on to write may appear too blunt- but they are the only reminders of his talent as a writer, in a film where all the writings we hear sound like love letters to himself.
It’s understandable why viewers may be turned off by England is Mine; Morrissey is a difficult character to like (both in real life and within the context of this biopic), and the film doesn’t dare to challenge any of the pre-conceptions viewers may hold about the problematic vocalist. But when music biopics repeatedly tell us that everybody who ever picked up a microphone is a generation defining icon worth treasuring, for a music biopic to portray its own subject as deeply unlikeable is oddly refreshing. We may be treated to the usual biopic cliches elsewhere, but in its portrayal of Morrissey as an eternally insufferable presence, England is Mine feels truer to the real life character than the romanticised portrayals of rock icons we have grown accustomed to seeing on the big screen.