Can a Morrissey biopic make us fall in love with Steven Patrick all over again? Well, I wonder says Andrew Male.
Morrissey: portrait of an artist as a young man. Plus Whitney, Mavis and Mick Rock.
England Is Mine DIR: MARK GILL, RELEASED AUGUST 4
IT CAN be hard work following Morrissey these days. His public statements on immigration, Brexit and Nigel Farage are hard to justify, while his recent live shows feel like joyless exercises in redundant idolatry. If only we could travel back 35 years to remind ourselves why we ever fell for this ridiculous man in the first place. That, in essence, appears to be the idea behind Mark Gill’s enjoyable new Morrissey biopic. Based on the singer’s pre-Smiths life in ’70s Manchester, England Is Mine attempts, unashamedly, to reconnect with the wit, spirit, and autodidact subversiveness of young Moz. An act of resurrection, that, like any rock biopic, stands on the strength of its central performance. Thankfully, in Jack Lowden (Rostov in BBC’s 2016 War & Peace adaptation) Gill has an actor who goes beyond mere impersonation (his Morrissey accent is close to perfection) to capture the inner strife of this troubled young man. While still waspish, rude and antisocial, this Morrissey is also thoroughly loveable. Lowden’s comic timing and physical awkwardness are reminders of how genuinely revolutionary Morrissey’s presence was in early ’80s rock media. By focusing on the singer’s pre-Smiths years – barracked in his bedroom, writing angry letters to the NME, moping in cemeteries with his friends Anji Hardie (Katherine Pearce) and Linder Sterling (Downton’s Jessica Brown Findlay) and singing in The Nosebleeds with Billy Duffy – England Is Mine conveniently avoids the rock biopic sin of musical re-creation. There are no scenes showing Morrissey and Marr creating songs ‘in the moment’, no direct quoting of lyrics and no one ever introduces themselves with their full name (“Hi, I’m Billy Duffy, I’ll eventually play guitar in The Cult”). Yes, the film does recreate Morrissey’s attendance at the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976, and his first encounter with Johnny Marr at a Patti Smith Group concert in August 1978, but Gill depicts both concerts in soft focus, avoiding embarrassing impersonators.
Possibly for rights reasons, he also plays different music over the performances. For the Pistols it’s George Formby’s When I’m Cleaning Windows, for Patti it’s Johnny Tillotson’s Send Me The Pillow You Dream On. Thus, we see these life-changing gigs through Morrissey’s eyes: Lydon reminds him of Formby, Patti is experienced in a romantic dream-state. Not everything is perfect. Findlay’s hair and make-up are decidedly un-’80s and the punk extras are King’s Road pastiche. But, at its best, England Is Mine is more like another, more good-hearted mini-genre, the British social issue film. Like Brassed Off or Billy Elliot, here is a loveletter to the left-leaning, working class of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the unique emotional bonds forged across class and gender by a Thatcher-ravaged dispossessed. When Morrissey turns up at the front door of Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) at the film’s end, we know the social significance of what is to come. England Is Mine shows us the significance of what went before.