The New Morrissey Biopic Returns to a Time Before He Was Problematic
It doesn't have the legal rights to use any of music and only focuses on his early, pre-Smiths life - so who exactly would want to watch it?
England is Mine, eOne films
In 2017, faves don't come much more problematic than Morrissey. Over the past 18 months, the former Smiths frontman has been acting every one of his 58 white-guy-years, hailing the Brexit vote as "magnificent" and professing to liking Nigel Farage "a great deal." That's in addition, by the way, to previous comments that brand entire countries as subhuman and compare seal culling with the Holocaust.
I fell in love with Morrissey when I was a teenager and heard him sing about standing on your own at clubs before going home and crying and wanting to die. As an adult, I find myself defending this man at dinner parties when talk turns to vegetarianism, or embroiled in smoking area arguments with strangers about how the immigration comments he made in 2007 were DELIBERATELY TWISTED BY THE FUCKING NME. Like a reticent believer reading alternative meanings into archaic Bible verse, I interpret his more inflammatory Facebook outbursts as counter to what I know, deep down, they really are: views that even Piers Morgan would deem a bit too far there, mate. I have debated changing my "Moz" tattoo to say "Mom," but then listened to the verse on "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" where he talks about feeling real arms around him and immediately repented and sworn never to doubt him again. This is not normal behaviour.
But even as a Morrissey apologist, I'm surprised to find out that my boy is getting a biopic. Is that…a good idea? A 93-minute deep dive into the life of a man who once blamed Beyoncé for the extinction of rhinos?
Apparently up for a challenge, BAFTA-nominated director Mark Gill and producers Baldwin Li and Orian Williams (who also worked on Control, the 2007 film about Ian Curtis's life) have taken on Moz. England Is Mine premiered at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival and gets its general cinema release next month.
The film focuses on the years before 1982 when Morrissey met guitarist Johnny Marr and formed The Smiths. This is less of a plot device and more a decision dictated by necessity—it's an unauthorised production and therefore doesn't have the legal rights to use lyrics or music from Morrissey and The Smiths' back catalogue. The screenplay was reportedly also written before the publication of Moz's 2013 Autobiography, so we miss out on seeing his vision of "forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago" brought to life on film. Shame that.
Instead we get a Motown-heavy soundtrack and school leaver Steven Morrissey (Downton Abbey actor Jack Lowden doing a patchy Irish-Mancunian baritone) still living in his family home in Stretford. In the absence of Marr or any other Smiths bandmates, the film focuses on teenage Steve's relationships with the women in his life: friend Anji Hardie, artist Linder Sterling, and his mother; a homely matriarch working to sustain a household for Steven and sister Jackie after their father moves out. To the backdrop of brown-hued Manchester pubs, damp cobbled roads, and Morrissey's own hallowed bedroom; adorned with Melody Maker clippings and an Oscar Wilde poster, they do their best to nurture him. Anji urges her timid friend to start a band instead of standing at the back of gigs with a notebook. Linder introduces him to art shows and cool parties and the cemetery, where they look at gravestones and quiz each other on literary verse.
It's nice to see female characters being given a central role in Morrissey's origin story. Music mag coverage of The Smiths too often focuses on the two-lads-from-Manchester trope—songwriting partners working in the tradition of Lennon and McCartney before them and the Gallagher brothers to come. But England Is Mine never quite lets these women become rounded characters. Anji falls into the Gobby Northern Woman caricature, eventually storming off in a huff because Morrissey won't get a job at ASDA. His mother ends up spouting schmaltzy maternal Americanisms about believing in yourself that run completely counter to the film's quiet English working class aesthetic, captured in Gill's careful close-ups on scuffed flock wallpaper and carefully laid breakfast spreads.
Also let's be real here: does anyone actually believe that Morrissey has ever in his life been in need of a pep talk about self-belief? Even when he was a back-bedroom nobody, this guy was pestering Granada Studios to use his Coronation Street plotlines and telling a sneering Tony Wilson that he was going to be a pop star before he'd ever sung in public.
I like Lowden's self-conscious twitching behind his NHS-prescription spectacles—it reminds me of the boys in my film studies class at university who mumbled into their Daniel Johnston T-shirts that I really should give OK Computer another go, I might understand it this time. Byt that's not Morrissey. For all his talk of shyness being nice, he is a self-assured prick. That's part of the enigma. By tying itself to the idea that Morrissey must be convinced of his talent via a Greek chorus of supportive women, England Is Mine completely misses what makes the man both so fascinating and infuriating.
As if to counterbalance its Disney-esque be-yourself plotline, the film goes overboard in its representation of Morrissey's melancholia. We get shots of trolleys in rivers, overhead views of crashing grey waves (but Manchester doesn't have a beach, remember?), and a scene that sees Steven wandering among deserted train tracks in a Diazepam haze. These are nice cinematic touches but imbue the film with a melodrama that doesn't fit with Morrissey's funny side—the one that put "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" on the same album as "I Know It's Over" and trolled The One Show. Unlike Joy Division, The Smiths' gloomy outlook always came with a punchline.
Of course, these are just details that will annoy Smiths purists who like to fact-check things in the Mozipedia. A biopic doesn't have to be true to life to be a good film. But it begs the question: if not pedantic Smiths fans, then who is England Is Mine for? With a forgettable soundtrack and no big musical scene—aside from Lowden's admirable turn as Nosebleeds frontman Morrissey covering New York Dolls' "Great Big Kiss"—to entice the BBC 6 Music crowd, it's can't be for them either. But then I'm hard-pressed to think of a normal movie-goer who would sit through a film about a yet-to-be-remarkable man living with his mother and doing not very much.
I think the answer comes back to the problematic Moz I keep finding myself sticking up for. Yes, music biopics are money-spinners but they also bring people back—often the ones we wish hadn't left so soon. Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy was lauded for taking us back in time to meet teenage John Lennon and Jamie Foxx's performance as Ray Charles in Ray is a mainstay of biopic best-of lists—released just months after the singer's death. Countless films have been made about Kurt Cobain and Tupac respectively—most recently All Eyez On Me, out last month. Just this week, Rami Malek was confirmed to be playing Freddie Mercury in an upcoming film about Queen.
Reliving the glory years is an especially attractive proposition with someone like Morrissey. Towards the end of England Is Mine, Johnny Marr, played by a baby-faced Laurie Kynaston, finally appears at Morrissey's front door. By this point, Lowden has cut his shaggy hair into the beginnings of that trademark quiff. I feel a jitter of unexpected emotion when I look at these big screen Cosplay versions of my favourite musicians, completely unaware of the creative alchemy they are about to perform in their mothers' front rooms. England Is Mine submerges you—typewriter, darkened underpass, Shelagh Delaney streets, and all—in pure Morrissey nostalgia. It's a world before the court cases and the bad novels, and it's a nice place to be.
On my way back home from the screening of England Is Mine, I listen to The Queen Is Dead the whole way through for the first time in a long time. I don't buy the argument that Morrissey and The Smiths can only be enjoyed by white men. Outsiderness—at least the kind that Morrissey promoted and protected so eloquently in the 80s by railing against Thatcher, telling meat-and-two-veg Britain to go vegetarian, and reminding us that it takes guts to be gentle and kind—speaks to everyone, especially those who don't see themselves represented in mainstream culture.
But today, that gladioli-adorned mantle has to be passed to other artists. Not the gobby indie rebels, but true weirdo outsiders like Frank Ocean and Lorde and Tyler, the Creator; maybe even Lana Del Rey. It's time to stop with the easy-sell biopics that exonerate an era we can't get back. I still love Morrissey and what his music represents, I always will, but I'm happy for him to return to his bedroom now. It's someone else's turn.
England Is Mine is in UK cinemas from August 4.