Morrissey might have been an extraordinarily important force in the English music scene of the 1980s and beyond, but in Mark Gill’s film about his earlier formative years in Manchester, he comes across as a pretty obnoxious fellow who sees himself as uniquely brilliant, openly contemptuous of virtually everybody else. In this telling, moreover, Morrissey not just obnoxious but pretty boring. Just call it “Portrait of the Artist as an Insufferable Young Twit.” No wonder this is an “unauthorized” partial biography.
Jack Lowden, the up-and-coming actor who was the downed Spitfire pilot in “Dunkirk” as well as golfer Tommy Morris in the little-seen “Tommy’s Honour,” plays young Steven, first with a mop of long hair and then with a much shorter cut. Though the hairdo changes, however, he remains the same morose, taciturn guy over the entire six-period (1976-82) covered by the script that Gill has concocted with William Thacker.
Morrissey is introduced as a shy seventeen-year old trapped in a stifling middle-class family that will soon collapse when his father (Peter McDonald) abandons the house. He spends most of his time scribbling lyrics in his notebook and writing savage critiques of bands he encounters in Manchester venues that he sends off to the papers while longing to get into the music scene himself. His only friend, it seems, is Anji Hardie (Katherine Pearce), but her advice that he get over himself and act rather than simply simmer finally drives them apart.
Fortunately he meets Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay), an edgy artist who’s no less certain of her superiority than he is. They hit it off and soon become a couple, and through her he’ll meet Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence), with whom he founds The Nosebleeds and finds some success. Both, however, will soon leave for greener pastures; Billy’s departure is especially hurtful, since scouts have picked him for advancement while ignoring Steven.
Meanwhile Morrissey’s gig in a conventional desk job at Inland Revenue is like purgatory, especially since his boss (Graeme Hawley) is a sputtering buffoon who might have stepped out of a Boulting brothers comedy from the fifties. He also puts off the advances of co-worker Christine (Jodie Comer), preferring to suffer alone. Eventually he’s fired—something you might well think should have happened much sooner—and winds up working in a hospital, where he encounters Anji as a patient, dying of cancer. But she expires before he can summon the courage to reconcile with her, and only his mother Elizabeth (Simone Kirby) is there to help him over the rough patch.
Finally fate intervenes when Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up at Steven’s doorstep and inquires whether he’d like to join him in starting a band. The Smiths are born! Cue final credits.
“England Is Mine” has the feeling of a long, turgid prologue to a movie we never get to see. One can understand why Gill made it the way he did—the rights to use The Smiths’ catalogue were closed to him, and he got no encouragement from Morrissey—but it’s more difficult to comprehend why he made it at all, at least in such a lugubrious, understated style. It’s the same sort of approach that suited his Oscar-nominated short “The Voorman Problem,” but dissipates any tautness or energy when dragged out to feature length. Lowden does what he can with the Morrissey presented by the script, but apart from a scene toward the close in which he destroys his room and the few bits in which he’s shown on stage with The Nosebleeds, he hasn’t much opportunity to do anything but sulk.
The rest of the cast handle their duties responsibly, though Hawley is encouraged to go overboard as Steven’s pompously bellowing boss, and the technical side of the picture is fine, if unimaginative, for a low-budget effort: Helen Watson’s production design and the costumes by Yvonne Duckett and Oliver Garcia have solid period feel, and Nic Knowland’s camerawork is professional if unexceptional. But fatally for a film about a musical icon, Adam Biskupski’s editing lacks rhythm, though in this he was probably following Gill’s wishes.
Among films about recent music legends, whether documentaries or semi-fictionalized accounts, “England Is Mine” does not rank high, however influential its subject has been.