A handsome little biopic that’s sopping wet with the same clichés that its whiny hero so adamantly disavows, Mark Gill’s “England Is Mine” distills the early days of one Steven Patrick Morrissey into an anonymous coming-of-age story that — if not for its keen sense of place — could really be about any mopey white boy whose talents are dulled by torpor. The film begins in the late ’70s, when young Steven is still living in his family’s splintered Stretford council house and writing flippant concert reviews for some local music rags; it ends a few years later, before he and Johnny Marr have yet to record their first track as The Smiths. This isn’t a portrait of an iconoclastic rock god, but of a brooding artist who thinks he’s far too good for such a boring town, and resents the fact that he should ever have to actually prove his genius to the rest of the world. Some people never change.
Of course, common wisdom suggests that nobody would ever want to see a movie about a holier-than-thou little shit, so Gill and co-writer William Thacker reduce their subject’s formative teenage years into the stuff of an unusually sullen Hallmark card about following your dreams. “The world is not meant for people like me,” wee Moz tells his mum. “Then create your own world,” she replies. Think different. How easy for someone who never knew how to think any other way. Films about famous visionaries almost always make the mistake of looking back at history through the safety goggles of hindsight, like they’re starting at the center of a maze and tracing their way back to the entrance. Gill tells us over and over again that life doesn’t owe Steven a living (or anything else), but he fails to recognize that it’s already given the kid so much.
Jack Lowden, who you might recognize as one of the frightened lads from “Dunkirk,” even if you can’t remember which, does a fine (if thankless) job playing the man who would become Morrissey. Sullen and pointy and snarling with righteous indignation, Lowden hides behind a wave of brown hair and tries to keep his head down. For a guy who would grow up to have the biggest voice in the world, “England Is Mine” finds him at a time when he can barely be bothered to open his mouth. Naturally, his most cutting lines are delivered through voiceover, as Lowden convincingly offers kernels of cold wisdom like “Manchester is a lovely place… if you happen to be a bedridden deaf-mute.” (Even when the the film is quoting Morrissey verbatim, it sounds like Morrissey is quoting other people.) The actor doesn’t really look like Morrissey, especially not at first, but who does?
Gill makes it easy to appreciate why Steven felt so much better than the life he was living, and he does so by stranding his singular protagonist in a movie that we’ve seen a million times before. Nearly every scene feels transcribed from the coming-of-age playbook: Steven comes home, only to be harangued by his unloving father. Steven goes to his pencil-pushing office job, only to be chewed out by his tight-ass boss. (“Why can’t you be more like everyone else?”) Steven can only be himself around his no-nonsense platonic gal pal (Katherine Pearce), who calls him on his shit, tries to shove him out of his comfort zone, and then promptly disappears from the film altogether.
It’s diverting enough to watch everyone play their parts as Steven pinballs between new people, and then pushes them away. “Downton Abbey” survivor Jessica Brown Findlay is a believably galvanizing force of nature as young artist Linder Sterling, and there’s an ineffable sincerity to the daftness with which Jodie Comer plays Steven’s prettiest co-worker — she doesn’t speak his language, so she turns hostile out of self-preservation. Gill shares his subject’s timidity, shying away from anything that might complicate this story beyond its most basic sentiments. Sex, of course, is entirely off the table. A certain Morrissey line comes to mind: “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course… not many.”
Steven, many viewers might know, would eventually go on to become one of the most famously (if sporadically) celibate people on the planet, but “England Is Mine” doesn’t have any interest in grappling with the physical world. On the contrary, it’s all about naive ideals and the unrealized potential that tends to suck the wind out of their sails. The movie might just flitter away on the breeze if not for an eclectic soundtrack (New York Dolls, Roxy Music, and classic pop like the Shangri-Las) and Gill’s ability to ground the story in the hard Manchester soil. Making the most of a modest budget and a handful of evocative locations, the director and his crew offset a generic narrative with a vividly brittle (and unmistakably British) atmosphere. Whatever the film’s deficits, it never has any trouble getting you to believe that Steven lives in the kind of gray place that could drain the life right out of someone — the kind of place where undiscovered geniuses are buried every day.
For most of “England Is Mine,” Steven seems destined to become one of them, though only Morrissey fans could possibly buy into the “genius” part; Gill never provides even the slightest glimpse into his subject’s brilliance, and the boy largely comes off as a narcissistic twit. The film wallows toward its turgid final chapter and faces a stalemate in Steven’s internal battle between the ease of doing nothing and the fear of doing something. However, the only thing more certain than his eventual success is the fact that Morrissey’s story isn’t nearly as universal as it’s made to feel here. Being yourself is great, but it’s not for everyone. The moral of this biopic seems to be that you should never be afraid to share your dance and glitter with the world, but the only real takeaway is that if you’re Morrissey, you’ll know it.
“England Is Mine” opens in theaters on August 25th.