Mark Gill’s biopic of Steven Patrick Morrissey (AKA Morrissey, lead singer of The Smiths) is a beautiful, well-paced portrait of a young artist yearning for fame, knowing he is something bigger than his humdrum town.
England is Mine charts a short period in the younger Morrissey’s life, as he attempts to balance his passion for writing with the need to earn a living. He works for a time in the local tax office, a job which bores him so much that he sneaks up onto the roof to write lyrics. Director Mark Gill references lyrics visually, and his choice really highlights Morrissey as someone who draws inspiration from everything around him. In one particularly sweet scene, he and artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) sit on a bench in a graveyard, bonding via Oscar Wilde quotes in an obvious reference to the song ‘Cemetry Gates’. In another scene, he coifs his newly-cut hair into that iconic quiff, whilst looking at a picture of James Dean that is pasted onto his wall.
The title, as well as a reference to his lyrics, alludes to the young Morrissey’s hunger to be recognised. Jack Lowden embodies the quiet self-confidence of somebody who knows that they are talented and destined for greatness. He impressively pulls off the droll wit and sarcasm that Morrissey is known for and, once the quiff is in place, looks alarming like the singer.
The film, whether by design or due to rights issues, has little performance in it: we don’t actually get to see Morrissey singing any Smiths songs. The story takes us right up to the moment that Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) knocks on his door. This might be frustrating for fans, but it comes across as a refreshing way to end the biopic – the narrow time period of the film makes for a deeper character study.
England is Mine is a film full of water, from the incessant northern rain to the swirling river that Morrissey stares into at the height of his depression. Whilst it could be argued that the film skirts close to a romanticisation of depression, it shows the devastating effect it can have on creative work ethic. Morrissey does not write when he is depressed; in fact, he hardly leaves his bed, sleeping his days away. This stuffy, suffocating feeling of duvets and unchanged clothes that comes with depression is palpable.
Whilst being a fan of The Smiths and of Morrissey has become a lot more embarrassing in recent years thanks to the singer’s controversial views, the music has been an important part of so many teenage lives across generations. Morrissey’s lyrics, especially in The Smiths era, captured the intensity of feeling that comes with being a teenager in such a disarmingly familiar way. England is Mine gives us an insight into what inspired these lyrics, and the formative years of the man behind them. For Smiths fans, it reminds us why we fell in love with them in the first place.