England Is Mine
This unofficial Morrissey biopic starring Jack Lowden is funny and tragic, and particularly enjoyable for its depiction of the singer’s relationships with the strong women in his life
Musician biopics are not the easiest things to get excited about. Depending on the artist, they’re usually produced as an easy sell: there's a ready-made international fanbase of millions who will be willing to give the film a chance out of devotion to their favourite idol, and for every Control or The Runaways, there are countless, terrible movies. Then there’s the repetitive narrative logic of our rap/pop/rock god/dess’ story – the hardships of obscurity, and the joy of making music and finding fame, before the nadirs of band break-ups, cynicism setting in and overdosing.
And if we’re dealing with a white guy as creative genius, there’s sexist, classist cliches as old as the Romantic poets: he’s living “the life of the mind” and shouldn’t have to cope with working mindless jobs like others do, he’s special (he’s not) and he probably has a troublesome woman – a wife or a mother – who burdens him with their mediocrity and ability to have children.
Director Mark Gill, who wrote the screenplay with William Thacker, does a good job of either sidestepping these tired narrative tropes or making them more palatable in England is Mine, which ingeniously focuses on young Morrissey (Jack Lowden) and the messy lead up to forming a songwriting partnership with Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston). The green, youthful Marr is sweetly placid and open to new creative input, compared to Morrissey’s depressive, instinctively defensive nature, though they find common ground in enjoying the 60s pop records that their mothers love.
There are barely a handful of scenes of the two together, as the overarching narrative hinges on Morrissey daring to take a chance with Marr, having felt abandoned by his artist friend Linder Sterling (a pitch perfect Jessica Brown Findlay) and his bandmate Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) when both sequentially find success and move to London, leaving Morrissey to languish in his depression and a Valium-induced haze in Manchester.
This is of course a streamlined, fictionalised account of Morrissey’s biography, which takes poetic license to distill this part of his life into a lean 94 minutes, and undoubtedly this may cause some upset among Morrissey purists.
Hopefully without being too much of a pedant, it’s worth pointing out that there are some faults in Morrissey’s characterisation here. Gill and Thacker’s script does not easily differentiate between Morrissey’s driven self-belief and classism – indeed Morrissey may have raged against the system, and those who sought to keep him down, but he didn’t necessarily hate the working class to which he belonged (he wrote many rejected scripts for kitchen sink soap Coronation Street).
Also, Morrissey’s queerness is bizarrely elided, with the only hints being his idolisation of Oscar Wilde. There’s nothing inherently wrong in rejecting historical accuracy for a better story (see Amadeus), but that’s not necessarily the case here.
Despite its flaws, England Is Mine is an entertaining watch, funny and tragic, and particularly enjoyable for its depiction of the singer’s relationships with the strong women in his life – his best friend Linder who grounds him and his mother Elizabeth (Simone Kerby) who tries to instill him with self-confidence in his darkest hours.
England Is Mine had its world premiere at EIFF 2017 and is released 4 Aug by EntertainmentOne