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England is Mine chooses to chronicle a period in the early, pre-Smiths, years of Morrissey’s life. 1970’s Manchester provides the backdrop to the time in a young artist’s life that is often called ‘formative’. The decision to include absolutely no Smiths songs shows admirable restraint. Fans, it is hoped, will be tided over by gaining an insight into what made the band’s frontman such an unlikely star. It’s the gloomy adventures of young Steven Morrissey; emphasis on first name over surname.
It’s not that the film is above fan service. Yes, there are numerous meetings at the cemetery gates. Yes, the protagonist goes to a club, stands on his own, leaves on his own, goes home, cries and wants to die. When young Steven is told by a boss that ‘I don’t owe you a living’ fans can think ‘Oh, contraire. In fact, you could say ‘England is Mine; It owes me a living”. Overall these nods all feel organic and the writing avoids constantly elbowing the viewer and asking us to get the reference. Casual viewers, if there are many in the market, likely won’t notice but, for those familiar, these moments feel like harbingers of what is to come rather than a George Lucas-style shoehorned mention of a thing we like.
Your enjoyment of England is Mine will, obviously, be largely dictated by your opinion of and tolerance for its lead character. Whether you think he’s a genius or a pompous asshole will colour your opinion before the first opening title appears on screen. The comic, OTT, dour nature of Morrissey’s lyrics and worldview was always tempered by the lively music of Marr et al. Without the vibrant, driving music it’s just the man we have to focus on.
And who is that man? Steven is a difficult, shy, arrogant young guy who battles with depression. Like many aspiring artists he see-saws between self belief and self pity and is constantly striving for a way forward in a world that’s not built for him or his kind. Jack Lowden avoids doing an impression (phew) and also manages to make us care about the character he’s playing. The performance straddles the line between someone who is sensitive and someone who is just self-absorbed. Steven feels bad about the world but also sorry for himself. He may be difficult but it’s hard not to care about someone who is just so constantly, unremittingly sad. It’s also to the film’s credit that it takes his fight with suicidal thoughts seriously.
Sometimes, though, the film is too concerned with the difficulties faced by Steven. Other people in his life are not the filmmakers’ concern but they can feel too much like mere objects; only important in how they impact our self declared genius lead. One, in particular, is treated very badly. She’s portrayed as a loyal friend until the story forgets about her for the whole second act only to have her reemerge to offer accidental motivation to this troubled young man. It’s a bum note in a story that approaches thoughtfulness much of he time. She was just another normie that didn’t get him.
Similarly, for a film with ‘England’ in the title it’s not too bothered about the idea of Englishness. That notion was such a huge part of The Smiths’ later appeal that this point feels worth mentioning. Thatcher, too, is largely absent. The band would later be partially defined in opposition to 1980’s British conservatism but that aspect isn’t explored or alluded to.
The problem with Morrissey is that solo he’s just not much fun. In The Smiths there was a sense of drive and, more importantly, a sense of humour, even self deprecation. In focusing on the man there’s plenty of pretension but we don’t get much comedy, even of the dark variety. It’s not wholly without laughs but you might find yourself wishing that the experience offered a little more in the way of dark wit and self awareness.
Like it’s subject, England is Mine is an equally engaging and frustrating, a sympathetic look at a time in Steven Morrissey’s life before he found that unique voice and the world forgot his first name.
England is Mine is in cinemas from Friday 4th August.