Film Review: England Is Mine

Mopey and pretentious, just like the real Morrissey, but lacking the music that made his work with The Smiths so influential.
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No matter how much you love a band or a recording artist or what impact they may have had on your life, there are few bigger disappointments than when someone tries to make a movie about them and it doesn’t live up to your expectations.

That’s certainly the case with England Is Mine, Mark Gill’s directorial debut, co-written with William Thacker, which attempts to tell the origin story of one Steven Patrick Morrissey, best known as the lead singer of ’80s mope-meisters The Smiths.

As might be expected, it’s a film that begins with prose as Morrissey, played by Jack Lowden—one of the many young actors in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk—mopes around his house, at his job or just walking around Manchester. Like so many men his age in England during the mid-’70s, Steven can’t get the approval of his father, and he works at a dead-end job he hates and barely shows up for. There’s really nothing new there, but his love for literature and pop music leads to pressure from the women in his life to form a band.

He quickly connects with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence), who would later to go on to form The Cult, and you can probably figure out the rest of the story by reading Wikipedia.

Who knows how Gill got the opportunity to tell the story of the young Morrissey and what he used for source material—Morrissey’s own biography? Or maybe even Wikipedia?—but this is clearly an unauthorized biopic. One that had the still-living Morrissey’s involved would be far more entertaining. Wisely, Gill never attempts to explore Morrissey’s sexuality except for his general disinterest in the willing women around him.

Gill’s not working from a particularly invigorating script, and maybe that’s why his young cast doesn’t give him any more than necessary. These may be disaffected youth, but when you spend an entire movie watching bored young people, including the ever-sulking Lowden, it’s hard not to get bored yourself.

One of the stronger performances comes from Jessica Brown Findlay of “Downton Abbey,” who plays Steven’s friend Linder, whose evolution as an artist is far ahead of where Steven’s at, giving him even more reason to mope. The lively first performance Steven gives with Duffy’s band, The Nosebleeds, seems to literally come from out of nowhere, but at least it gives the film some much-needed energy. Eventually we start to see some emotion in Lowden that could have saved the film if it appeared earlier.

Even Steven’s sometimes amusing feud with his angry boss wears thin, but at least he makes the right choice to pursue music, or else we would never have heard of him, pretentions and all.

England Is Mine plods along with Morrissey’s ever-present running narrative on the gloom that is his life and working-class Manchester at the time. The pace and tone are almost a constant reminder of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s 2009 breakout in Nowhere Boy, about the first meeting between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, except that this movie ends just as Morrissey first meets Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.

At least Gill got the rights to use some of the music that influenced Morrissey, like Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople and Sparks, but this is a movie that requires far more music, especially some from Morrissey himself. Not having any of it diminishes one’s ability to appreciate Gill’s interpretation of the singer’s writing.

It feels like there’s a stronger movie to be made about Morrissey and The Smiths—or maybe, just maybe, despite all the wonderful records, their origin is truly as bland and boring as England Is Mine makes it out to be. Frankly, Mr. Shankly, I don’t believe that for a minute.

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