You do not have to know The Smiths or read Oscar Wilde to appreciate England is Mine, but it certainly is helpful. The very title of this biographical drama is a hidden gem for those familiar with the band’s discography. Based on the early years of Steven Morrissey – the front man of the British band The Smiths – the movie is a brave feature debut of its director, Mark Gill, yet it ends up feeling rather generic as a biopic, perhaps more easily passing for a coming-of-age drama or as a homage paid to the 1960s’ kitchen sink. In short, the story follows young Morrissey’s internal struggles to become a famous musician, along with his social awkwardness, a great dose of narcissism, and an even greater amount of water swirling.
The director made an interesting choice not to show Morrissey through his brilliance but rather through his weaknesses and humanity. This departs from the conventional vision of genius and it does it in a truly believable way. There is a good bunch of supporting characters who play significant roles in Morrissey’s late-blooming transformation. We see his friend, Angie, arranging professional meetings for him, his mum sharing her cliché “follow your dreams” speeches, feminist artist Linder Sterling encouraging him in his pursuits, Billy Duffy and Johnny Marr literally banging on his door, and even his mundane boss – all attempting to get the stubborn Morrissey to start doing… something – that is, something other than bunkering himself in his dingy room hiding from the real world behind cheap curtains.
For a considerable part of the movie everything about Morrissey is miserable. He wants to be famous yet he acts the role of a reluctant hero; he writes critical reviews of bands for a magazine believing he is superior yet resenting the necessity to prove his greatness to others; he feels alienated yet he pushes away those who try to help him. It is therefore easy to grow frustrated with the character as we witness his journey. We do not see Morrissey sing until fifty minutes into the runtime and we never get that again after this point. Years pass with a focus on the character’s inertia and it does feel like by the end of the movie there is nothing left for Morrissey to do but become famous after all. As Gill said himself, ‘it’s about a boy who is struggling,’ and this point is highlighted repeatedly throughout the movie. The viewer, coming out of the theatre, cannot escape the feeling that not much has changed, and indeed, there is little narrative momentum. When Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) knocks on Morrissey’s door in a final scene, it feels like the real story has only just begun.
On the other hand, the honest and captivating performance of Jack Lowden — who you might recognize from another recent production, Dunkirk — gives Morrissey’s character an involuntary charm. With his help, Morrissey evolves into a modern representation of an archetypal romantic artist or a misunderstood poet hiding his true feelings behind witty comments. The film reinforces this through numerous references to writers such as Oscar Wilde. Furthermore, Lowden’s acting is unwavering in its truthfulness and likeness to the behavior of the real-life Morrissey. The actor’s appearance, mannerisms – even the awkward clutch of sleeve – are all acted with a careful attention to detail.
Making the most of a modest budget, evocative locations of the 1970s, and Gill’s personal knowledge of Manchester, England is Mine creates a strong sense of place and time. With its ubiquitous desire for escapism and faded colour palette, the movie is clearly a piece of nostalgia. Here, Nic Knowland does a good job with cinematography; it was a pleasure to watch the way the scenes were staged, especially in regard to the lighting choices.
Also, despite the overall depressive feeling, the scenes in which Morrissey works in a tax office, as well as his snappy responses to Christine’s advances, are genuinely funny and provide the movie with an enjoyable, lighter tone.
Finally, a little pointer to those going to the cinema out of love for the band: As the movie focuses on Morrissey’s life before The Smiths, none of the band’s music features in the film.
Overall, England is Mine is not a movie for everyone. Somehow confusing for non-Smiths fans, the movie showcases a conflict between “the ease of doing nothing and the fear of doing something” in a visually pleasing way and with some great acting.
Many thanks to the Gulbenkian for the complimentary tickets
by Adriana Rączkowska
edited by Jules Maines