Movie Review: 'England is Mine'
Biopic of teen Morrissey does disservice to the man.
I have to believe that writer and singer Morrissey is more interesting than the version of him brought to light in the movie England is Mine. I cannot sit here and tell you I know much more about Morrissey than what I read on his Wikipedia page. I can’t name a single Smiths song or Morrissey solo single. That said, I still know who he is. Somehow through some kind of pop cultural osmosis I know who Morrissey is and that is enough to tell me he must be interesting, he has to be more interesting than this mopey, dopey boring version of Morrissey in England is Mine.
England is Mine, which I am told is a lyric from a Smiths song, picks up the story of Steven Patrick Morrissey in his teenage years. Steven is not your standard English teenager. He likes to write lengthy letters to the music magazine NME criticizing the music scene in his corner of England and secretly hoping that someone at NME might read him and give him a job. His other hope is to become part of a band but he seems so crippled by social anxiety that even when an opportunity presents itself he’s too frightened to pursue it.
Morrissey’s life, according to England is Mine, hinges on his chance friendship with artist and singer Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Sterling). Sterling entered Morrissey’s life after criticizing one of his letters to NME and then arranging to meet him. Linder is everything that Steven is not, outgoing, aspiring, happy. She takes to Steven in the fashion of a muse but not exactly an inspiration. Linder is the gentle prod that finally gets Steven to take himself seriously and become a singer. Linder herself could be the subject of a film as her influence as both an artist and a singer was a significant part of English punk and new wave music and yet you would not know that from England is Mine which doesn't even mention that she had her own band.
One might think that Morrissey taking the stage for the very first time with the band The Nosebleeds in 1978 might be some incredible moment. I would imagine that there are Smiths fans who wish they could have been at that club that night. And yet, England is Mine barely gives the moment any weight. Here is a true pop cultural artifact for the very people England is Mine is attempting to appeal to and the film gives it less weight than scenes where Morrissey is angrily scribbling in a notebook while suffering the mediocrity of a day job in the tax office.
Much of England is Mine is dedicated to Morrissey angrily scribbling when he isn’t moping, sleeping or madly typing things that may or may not be song lyrics. We get a supremely dull voice over from star Jack Lowden; nothing against the young actor, I’m sure he was directed to mimic Morrissey’s singing style in the way he performs the voice over, but what is said has little if any significance to someone who isn’t familiar with Morrissey’s writing. Then again, I don’t know if the voice over is merely cinematic shorthand or if they are meant to reflect Morrissey’s writing. Is that my fault for not being a Smiths fan or the film’s fault for failing to communicate?
What truly bugs me about England is Mine however is how much interesting stuff the film skips over in favor of the brooding and moping. Again, returning to Morrissey’s Wikipedia page I find that while the film portrays a Morrissey lacking ambition and fearful to the point of terror in engaging with the world around him, the real-life Morrissey, however, was a hardcore music fan. He led not one but two separate fan clubs, one for The Cramps and one for The New York Dolls. The clubs were well populated and Morrissey would go on to write a book about The New York Dolls. The character in England is Mine can barely rouse himself off the couch. I got the fan club stuff from Wikipedia as the movie apparently doesn't find this part of his life as interesting as his bitchy fights with his sister or his banal day jobs.
Egregiously, England is Mine introduces the start of The Smiths in the final 10 minutes of the film. The film skips the interesting detail that future Smiths co-founder Johnny Marr first reached out to Morrissey when he was just 14 years old and then just showed up on Morrissey’s doorstep one day having been inspired by Morrissey’s book on The New York Dolls to try and build a partnership with this man whose work he so admired. That’s a pretty interesting detail and it gets barely a passing mention in England is Mine.
Now, I understand the film is intended to portray Morrissey’s early life, before The Smiths, but if they are going to leave out the most formative and interesting parts, why bother? As much as the movie is deeply dedicated to the legend of Morrissey, the film doesn’t seem to respect that legend. I understand that much of the problem in portraying the interesting aspects of Morrissey's life is that it would be expensive to get the rights to the music needed to do it but that leads to a question then, why bother? Why bother telling the story if you can't use the things that make the story so damn interesting?
Returning to my opening point, I barely know who Morrissey is. My brilliant sister is a fan of his and The Smiths and I likely picked up whatever notions I have of Morrissey from her. But there is also something so iconic about Morrissey that his persona managed to soak into pop culture enough that I understand the basics of the stereotypical Morrissey, a sad, brooding, bitchy, and eternally irascible pop star who managed to earn a cult following even as he willingly repelled the people who loved his work.
It's that stereotype that England is Mine gets right. It portrays the stereotypical Morrissey just as someone unfamiliar with him might expect and that pissed me off frankly speaking. I might not be a Smiths fan but he must be interesting to have permeated popular culture enough to come to the attention of people like me who aren’t familiar with his work. Parroting back the stereotype of Morrissey and calling it a tribute is a disservice to the man the film intends to idolize.
One last quick aside, you can tell I am not a Morrissey or Smiths fan because I made no reference to the song Girlfriend in a Coma when I reviewed my favorite movie of the year The Big Sick. That movie is built for a reference to that song but I only became aware of the song while writing this review.