When I first found out there was going to be a Morrissey movie, I was at once excited and depressed; anxious to see what this movie would be, but at the same time sad that someone beat me to it.
I remember when Morrissey’s autobiography came out. We all thought we would get the straight story (minus the apparent homosexual affair that American publishers deleted), and we did get just that: Morrissey’s version. Finally. His life in about 400 pages, written as if he were channeling Oscar Wilde and Emily Bronte. After all the point-of-view books on him and then finally his own, did we really need a movie?
Turns out we did.
England Is Mine, which hit British theaters over the summer and is now available stateside via streaming devices, got a lot of bad press, and a handful of reviews that were less than enthusiastic. But most of the backlash came from family and friends of Moz. A movie about one of the elusive, enigmatic, worshipped figures in music is admittedly a very difficult feat to pull off. How do you paint a portrait of this guy without his permission or feedback? Morrissey never sat down with writer/director Mark Gill to tell his story; all Gill really had to go on was legend and Moz’s autobiography.
As is, the film is rife with Morrissey standbys — and most of them are accurate. These are things that Morrissey writes about in his songs and has told everyone a million times about his upbringing. It’s not so big a mystery to anyone familiar with him or his former band, The Smiths. Morrissey had long hair. What?! He was a hippie? No, but yes, Moz had a long mop of black hair that fell across his face and almost over his library glasses. His teenage bedroom walls were adorned with posters of Wilde and Roxy Music, musty library books stacked a mile high, sweaters and dress shirts all over the floor.
In the starring role, Jack Lowden captures Morrissey’s moves, demeanor and voice. He is pretty on point. It’s not an impression, as most people do. He doesn’t sing his words, rather he adopts the slightly bored and bothered, monotone, which has a touch of higher stature to it. The subtle turns of the face. The holding of the microphone on stage with The Nosebleeds. What he lacks in exact looks, he makes for in spirit. Sad spirit. Lowden clearly watched hours and hours of Morrissey, adopting his sneers, walk and yes, kindness to some.
England Is Mine allows us to meet Steven Patrick in the days before he was Morrissey — just out of high school and still bullied by ruffian townies. The geography is a road map that shapes his later success as a pop icon: From the troubles at home with a dour, alcoholic father to the bitter boss at the desperate office job who tells him to “choose music or work.” These characters set the stage for the longest running rock opera in music history — the drama of Morrissey. Steven is sending in articles for the New Musical Express when we first encounter him on-screen. He’s mostly met with rejection, that is until Linder Sterling (played with goth precision by Jessica Findlay) sees one and communicates with him via the paper. It’s almost as if she meant to meet him. There was a boy genius roaming her streets. She could feel there was a future star poet in her midst, and she aimed right at him. They work together to this day.
The producers, who also made the great Anton Corbijn-directed Ian Curtis film Control, reinvented Manchester the way it sounds on Smiths albums, from the young scenester clubs to the dank kitchens and dirty rivers that Steven walked along. There’s a distinct authenticity to it all. I believe every scene, sound, and sight. The movie sings with legendary accounts and truths of Steven’s upbringing. The intimate setting echoes the loneliness and romanticism of the music that would pour forth. You get the feeling in each scene that there’s an aching beauty bottled up inside this boy. It’s so relatable that you could be watching a movie about any teenager—maybe even yourself. Between the Byronic looks of actor Jack Lowden and the disconnect of everything Steven is supposed to be, you feel the heaviness of imprisonment he felt in that house, in that job, in that city.
Young Morrissey wants to form a band, but has a crippling case of stage fright. He stands in his bedroom, feigning moves to his own disappointment. You see the birth of Morrissey’s signature twisting and turning—realize that his exalted gestures came out of an awkwardness, out of his not knowing how to be the typical rock star. He hides away listening to Spector girl groups and 1940s Manchester crooners like George Formby.
Which inevitably brings us to the soundtrack. Morrissey was obsessed with T. Rex and Mott The Hoople, which make up most of the music in England Is Mine. One of the brilliant parts of this film is that it features all pre-Smiths music. They didn’t need the rights to any of those Morrissey/Marr tunes, which come at a hefty price, because they didn’t exist yet. The playlist is a diverse mix of Steven’s early favorites, from The New York Dolls to Magazine to The Shangri-Las. When he finally connects with pre-Cult Billy Duffy to form The Nosebleeds, Moz becomes a front man singing “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” already teasing the gender-bending with a club show of commanding presence. It is this night that ignites his future.
Unfortunately for Steven, this performance garners some unwanted attention: Girls. Supposedly, a Manchester bird fell for him at work and wanted all his attention after reading his diary and seeing him prance around stage. He reacts to this by clamming up and avoiding any contact that would suggest romance or remote interest. Of course, this leads his one-dimensional office co-workers to believe he’s gay.
Meanwhile, somewhere in these streets roams a very young Johnny Marr, portrayed perfectly by Laurie Kynaston, who embodies him in a mix of boyish excitement and mature coolness. Steven briefly crosses paths with Marr, but doesn’t pay much attention to him. Even at 19, he has an air of entitlement to him — an “I am more than these philistines” attitude. After Billy leaves for a session job in London, crushing any future band success, Moz mopes around cemeteries with Linder, quoting Dickens and Keats, until Linder also goes to London to pursue an art career, leaving the young upstart to face an impending depression on his own. He starts to spiral out of control by staying in bed all day, losing his job, and abandoning writing and music. We don’t worry though, because we know that all this is necessary to get to the Morrissey we know and love. This is the time that his legend is formed. All the misadventures, longing, and sadness culminate in an essential haircut: His hippie hair transforms into a Billy Fury pompadour.
After the storm passes, Moz awakens renewed and begins embracing who he really is. A few years pass and he seems to have shaken the immoveable death sentence he imposed on himself. He reignites his writing, his reading, and even forms a tight relationship with his mother. He dives back into trying to form a band, and that’s when young Johnny sees his ad at the local record shop. Steven tests Johnny to play an album out of his collection and he picks a Marvelettes tune. In this moment, The Smiths are born. In a beautiful last five-minute montage, Johnny and Steven join forces and bring us to the final shot, where we see a full-fledged Morrissey, sporting the iconic high hair, button-down, and raincoat, knocks on Marr’s door for the first official rehearsal.
In my opinion — and this is not just based in my devotion to the subject matter — this is an honest film. It’s impossible to make a biopic about a beloved figure that satisfies everyone, but this is the best on-screen portrayal of Morrissey we are going to get. The movie is classy and sticks to the facts as we know them. At the heart of England Is Mine is a kid who feels he doesn’t fit in anywhere and builds his own reality. This is an age-old tale that most adolescents go through and for that fact alone, his music connected with so many who could relate. It still does. Nothing feels fake or forced here. The film avoids the pitfalls of feeling overstated or heavy-handed. The subtle nuances of family, friendship, and music are relaxed enough so that it flows seamlessly; even the avant-garde shots of Manchester tunnels, smoke stacks, and empty fields that Morrissey walks alone, with his diary, jotting down his every thought, lyric, and desire.
As any fan would know, England Is Mine refers to the lyric in The Smiths’ “Still Ill.” Maybe he wasn’t owed a living, as the song states, but he sure as hell took one.
Mark Phinney is a filmmaker living in Boston. Follow him @FatFilm.