Director: Mark Gill
Stars: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jodie Comer, Laurie Kynaston, Simone Kirby, Peter McDonald, Finney Cassidy,
This is a guest review by Evan of http://cinemasfringes.com
This biopic purports to chronicle the young adult life of the much-admired but controversial English alternative pop singer Morrissey, prior to him shooting to fame with his band The Smiths. Jack Lowden plays Steven Patrick Morrissey, the son of an Irish immigrant family living in Manchester. He’s an eccentric, socially awkward nerd who writes his own short published articles and feverishly follows the country’s burgeoning late 1970s punk and rock scenes around various city venues with his bespectacled platonic female friend Anji (Katherine Pearce).
He decides to put up a notice in the local newsagents expressing his keenness in forming a band of his own, quoting the following influences: New York Dolls, David Bowie and Kenneth Williams. He gets a couple of other young musicians to show their interest: Billy Duffy and his friend Johnny Marr. However, when the former shows up outside the local music shop to meet with him and Anji, he has an attack of social anxiety and walks away. Anji becomes fed up with his flakiness, and decides to distance himself from him, telling him to call her “when he grows a pair”.
As his father has suddenly left home and he’s too shy to form a band, he takes up a job working in a tax office, where his perpetually unmotivated nature ensures him the ridicule of his colleagues and the wrath of his boss. He falls into a pair of platonic friendships with a bohemian artist named Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay), with whom he has a clear intellectual compatibility and a new starter at his workplace named Christine (Jodie Comer) who clearly fancies him, and blackmails him into a date after catching him writing one of his bile-heavy letters on the building’s rooftop.
Eventually he manages to start up a band with Billy Duffy and they get to play a gig. After Morrissey receives a positive review and the group attracts the interest of a London-based record company, its seems like he has a chance of fulfilling his dreams yet. At that moment, however, fate intervenes.
Morrissey has always been one of the English music scene’s more enigmatic, idiosyncratic and divisive figures – and arguably not the most obvious choice for a biopic. He has always been more of a persona shrouded in a deliberate air of mystery than any kind of metaphorical open book. Writer/director Mark Gill has attempted to get around this by piecing together an imagined version of his younger days based around song lyrics and interviews. However, this approach has already attracted controversy, including from his childhood friend James Maker, who has described it as being “insulting”.
Unfortunately, even when disregarding arguments over its accuracy (or lack thereof), England is Mine doesn’t really hit the mark. The performances are the best thing here, with Jack Lowden convincingly capturing a shy, rather miserable young man. The three actresses who play his platonic girlfriends – Jessica Brown Findlay, Jodie Comer and Katherine Pearce – also successfully imbue their characters with strong and distinctive personalities. Findlay, in particular, shares an effective chemistry with Lowden which makes their scenes together the highlights here. The trouble is that their presence also illustrates one of the film’s major problems.
The various supporting characters tend to come and go, leaving us filling in the blanks as to their fates. The trio of platonic girlfriends that Morrissey attracts are interesting characters in themselves, but frustratingly seem to function as little more than a way to add definition to the latter before being pushed out of the story.
The depiction of Morrissey himself seems to be of an aloof, miserable, vaguely pretentious daydreamer. The film itself tends to capture this same worldview a little too well – i.e. coming across as aloof, miserable and vaguely pretentious in feel.
There may be the aforementioned side to the man, but the other side of the coin that his fans have always loved him for – a genuinely singular musical talent who has always positioned himself as an outsider intellectual – has been left rather underrepresented. Sure, we get some pithy dialogue and plentiful references to his tastes in the rock and punk music of the time, Oscar Wilde and more. We get some depictions of a grim underdog life that may well have driven him artistically. What we don’t get, however, is any of his actual music. It’s basically a Morrissey biopic featuring none of what made him popular in the first place – just faint echoes of it.
The result is a grim and uninspiring experience, directed with a funereal sense of pacing and variable nods towards artiness by Mark Gill. Some of these are successful, an effective slow and silent pull back from a telephone after a fateful call being one particularly memorable example. On the other hand, his penchant for deliberately blurry shots is overused to the point where it looks amateurish rather than creative.
The sights and sounds of the period are at least captured reasonably well, albeit on a low budget – as evident in the tight framing, in particular during street scenes. While there’s nothing by either Morrissey or The Smiths here, there are plenty of tracks by other period artists such as The Sex Pistols and Roxy Music. Meanwhile, the depressingly brown office environments of the time, laden with unbelievable masses of paper files to store away, are captured with an almost wince-inducing authenticity.
Ultimately, England is Mine is only worth watching for its performances, and even then only barely. If you want an imaginary musical biopic, you are better off sticking with Frank.