Written and directed by Mancunian Mark Gill, England is Mine dramatises the early life of a floppy-haired, bespectacled Steven Patrick Morrissey, played by the Dunkirk star Jack Lowden, before the seminal meeting of guitarist Johnny Marr and formation of The Smiths. The title takes its line from ‘Still Ill’, a track from the self-titled album by The Smiths, where Morrissey pieces together a somewhat Cartesian mind-body dualism, a critique of post-war society, and a rather brutal snog under a railway bridge. The song is a masterpiece. The film however, leaves much to be desired.
Whether it’s a biopic or a piece of historical fiction is uncertain, but what screams out is its lack of Smiths songs or proverbial wisdom from the Pope of Mope, as canonised by the media. Taking its fair share of aberrant slating by critics—previously summed up as an excuse to further mythologise Morrissey—this aspect of the film’s past reviews is hard to swallow.
However, it doesn’t deserve so much disapproval and distaste. Not all of it is justified. Struggle pokes out its ugly head in every shot of the film, whether it’s with his family, his manager or even with himself, and Gill captures this with sensitivity. Struggle is like bread to Morrissey, and he must endure it to burst out of his bedroom and onto the stage. But we aren’t privy to that. The film cuts before any of the good stuff happens, with the protagonist just waiting to grow out of his morose chrysalid. Imagine your nana’s curtains, and you have the film’s cinematographic colour scheme: a bit stale, a bit worn, a bit dull. The aim is to evoke the stifling atmosphere of 1970s Manchester. It does that very well.
And then there’s the waiting. There’s a lot of waiting. Just like Morrissey who sits around, typing, crumpling bits of paper that he viciously tears from his typewriter, we viewers sit around and track Morrissey strolling in a record shop, Morrissey in a stuffy nightclub, Morrissey on a roof, penning vitriol about his co-workers. Without the primary material, Gill relies on hits from the Shangri-Las, Roxy Music and even George Formby to add substance to his sparse dialogue.
Is the film just for the fans? I don’t think so. The introspective scenes of Morrissey’s soul searching and visuals of crashing water have a dreamy, pensive quality. Gill brings to life the mucky charm of canals and the sepia banality of office work, filming all the scenes in Morrissey’s home town of Stretford. In parts, it has great touches of finesse. And it’s not all shots of Morrissey viciously attacking his typewriter, his room, and his local music scene that’s brim-full of ‘troglodytes’. Though, one scene set in a cemetery is a little cringeworthy to say the least. The punked-up Jessica Brown Findlay as artist/musician Linder Sterling sits side by side with her ‘Shakespeare’, taking it in turns to recite William Blake’s London. Very poetic. Another sore point is the film’s depiction of mental illness. Clinical depression is represented with dull scenes of the beaten but not broken protagonist sitting in bed with the curtains drawn. Frankly, a bit shameful.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The final few scenes are poignant. Lowden must be commended on his performance, capturing just the right amount of charming moodiness and scathing wit, even if he’s not a perfect look-alike. Overall, it’s funny and it’s raw. No need to hang the director, England is Mine does the job, unfortunately just not as well as I would have hoped.