Tuesday, 29 August 2017

England Is Mine (2017)

"Stop being such a mardarse"

The fact that this is almost literally the first thing said in England Is Mine tells you that it is indeed a biopic of the early years of one Steven Patrick Morrissey. It's up to you whether you regard him as an infuriating miserabilist or genius. Or perhaps both.

I approached England Is Mine with some trepidation - not because it's 'unauthorised' (would we ever expect Morrissey to give his blessing?) but because it's had some pretty terrible reviews. To which I must say, where they watching the same film as me?

I think where people have gone wrong is in expecting the film to be an out and out Morrissey biopic - and, to that end, a biopic of The Smiths; the amount of whispers I heard in the frankly deserted screening I attended that were along the lines of 'this is just gonna be about his life before The Smiths isn't it? - rather than a touching and heartfelt coming of age drama about life as a 'back bedroom casualty'. When watched in that context, it's obscene to think that England Is Mine has received so little praise, because I genuinely think it handles the concepts of loneliness, isolation and of struggling with mental health issues with an empathetic and deft touch. 

Much of this success comes from not only the strong characterisation found within the script written by director Mark Gill with co-writer William Thacker, but in a superlative central performance from Jack Lowden as the lad himself. Both the performance and the writing acknowledge that what we're actually witnessing here is a chrysalis moment: a series of transitional states that turns Steven Patrick Morrissey into Morrissey, arguably the most important frontman figure in British music in the last thirty years. The initial stages of the film are devoted to Morrissey as the gauche, square peg in a round hole. An ill at ease, awkward in his own body youth (two jeering teenage girls refer to him as 'Lurch' when he refuses to engage in their chat), this is someone who cannot accept his own self, let alone his place in the world. He has the innate sense that he is different, that he wants different things, but he hasn't the ability or confidence to bring this about for himself. It's only when, aided by the encouragement from his art student friend Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) and appalled by the notion that he's spend his days as a wage slave at the local Inland Revenue office, he finally finds the courage to use music as his outlet. This happiness is short-lived however when he realises the chance of stardom is not open to him, and the next persona of Morrissey we see is one he has no say in choosing for himself; Morrissey the youth in the midst of a breakdown. Finally, on coming out of his depression thanks to some sound advice from his doting mother (Simone Kirby) he starts the journey of becoming the Morrissey that we all know now (or at least think we know) and that fateful encounter with one Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston).

Built around this great central performance are some really solidly written, identifiable and well played supporting characters - three of which are enjoyable female. Katherine Pearce's Anjie Hardie (she who utter the immortal 'mardarse' comment at the top of this review) is wonderfully reminiscent of every socially shy, reticent boy's put-upon, long suffering and sarcastic girlfriend (and I know I had one myself). She's immensely protective of Morrissey - her radar for rough boys looking for kicks ensures he doesn't 'get twatted' on the way home from a club - and shares his morbid fascinations (picking up a book about The Moors Murders in Morrissey's bedroom she wonder aloud if he ever thinks that the fate that befell those poor children could have just as easily happened to them; an accurate reminder of just how much of a shadow was cast from those heinous acts over children of the northwest in the '60s and '70s - indeed, I once heard someone in a pub perhaps rightly claim that Manchester never had the swinging sixties because of Hindley and Brady) as well as his belief that he is something special, but she's frustrated by his inability to be proactive: "The world isn't gonna come to you" she complains after another example of her social wet nursing and hand holding falls flat because of his suffocating shyness.

More successful in terms of coaxing Morrissey out his shell is Linder Sterling who enters the story just when he needs her the most. The photomontage artist is portrayed by Jessica Brown Findlay, casting that I was initially wary of, not because I dislike Brown Findlay - I don't, I really like her - but because I feared she was too known from previous high profile performances for the role. Now I see that this wasn't a baggage but a blessing: It's only right that Linder has some star appeal as it not only helps to point out right from the off that this is someone destined to go places, but also imbues the role with the necessary quality to convince both as Morrissey's verbal sparring partner and a prime mover on the Manchester punk scene. 

Lastly, there's Jodie Comer as Christine, one of Morrissey's co-workers at the Inland Revenue (an accurate depiction of the drudgery of the civil service, that is blessed by a wonderfully comic caricature of a small-minded and ineffectual manager played by Graeme Hawley). Vacuous and attractive, Christine is a character that both repels and (to an extent) appeals to Morrissey. He's awkward from her attentions and despairing of her banal tastes and, by keeping her at arm's length, he will ultimately suffer at her hands, but her character is just as important as Linder or Anjie's - she's the archetypal 'heroine' of some of the many cutting and critical lyrics in the songs that Morrissey would go on to pen.

So many of the reviews for the film raise the fact that none of these songs put in an appearance as evidence that England Is Mine is a disappointment. But again, did they really expect to hear tracks by The Smiths in a story concerning the period before The Smiths? For me personally, I think England Is Mine tells the story it wants to tell in the best possible way it can and, barring a few scenes of Morrissey watching his beloved kitchen sink dramas or Coronation Street or rubbing shoulders with other budding Mancunian musicians who went on to become Joy Division etc, I really can't see how the film could be improved upon. It's a deeply evocative and atmospheric piece, more reminiscent (to me at least, at times) of Terence Davies trilogy than of Corbijn's Control. Slow, and low key yes, this is an origins story if you like.

A final aside; the screening I went to (just over a fortnight ago now) at Liverpool FACT's Picturehouse had just ten people in it including myself. Two of these were an elderly couple whose presence rather surprised me. They spent much of the film whispering, laughing and then finally - the man at least - snoring. I'm not sure whether Morrissey would disapprove or approve of that.


  1. Terrific review, found myself nodding whilst reading it. I saw it at the Picturehouse in Greenwich, one of (at most) a dozen. A real shame it's not getting the plaudits or the audience figures it deserves. Like its subjects, it's not without its flaws but nevertheless remains essential viewing, I'd say.

    1. Thanks Martin. It's really saddening that this has been so unfairly mauled, because it is a very good movie. I wonder if, along with the possible reasons I've already listed here, the real reason people seem to want to give it a kicking is because many of them simply don't care for Morrissey? Even those who like him, after all, often still have our reservations.

    2. That's a good point. If this had been made, say, ten years ago, I think it would have got a fairer press and better audience figures. Those intervening years have given Moz more opportunities to make pronouncements that even his staunchest fans find hard to defend or explain away. And with every such utterance, a few of the less staunch fans fall away. Maybe the imminent album will regenerate some interest.