ENGLAND IS MINE
Director: Mark Gill
Cast: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay, Adam Lawrence, Jodie Comer, Katherine Pearce, Vivienne Bell, Simone Kirby, Laurie Kynaston, Peter McDonald
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 8/25/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 24, 2017
Before he simply called himself Morrissey, Steven Patrick Morrissey was a young man, living with his family in Manchester, certain that he possessed the talent to make it as a singer and lyricist, and despondent over the fact that his dream seemed impossible. That's the story of England Is Mine, a narrow biography that turns the singer/songwriter into a completely ordinary guy with some social quirks and psychological issues.
The point, one assumes, is that it's supposed to be inspiring that a man who comes from such beginnings could achieve fame, but the screenplay by director Mark Gill and William Thacker overcompensates on the ordinariness of its subject. Little here points to the man Morrissey would become, and the hints of the young man's future that we do see here don't make him seem like anyone particularly special. He sings twice in the movie—once in front of a crowd and the other time behind a closed door. His writing is relegated to maybe two halves of separate lines that he has jotted down in a notebook, which he always keeps on hand.
Whatever we're supposed to take from this portrayal of Morrissey, it certainly isn't that he's a man of talent. That, we have to guess, is for the audience to know already.
The story begins with a 17-year-old Steven (Jack Lowden) in 1976. He lives with his mother (played by Simone Kirby), his elder sister (played by Vivienne Bell), and his father (played by Peter McDonald), who leaves the family shortly after the beginning of the story. He's a music fan, of course, mostly listening to the pop songs of the 1960s (He's particularly fond of the Shangri-Las, and the only time we hear him sing, it's a cover of one of the group's tunes). He keeps up with the contemporary, local music scene, too.
In addition to writing his own lyrics in his notebook, he types letters to the local newspaper about the bands he sees live—writing in lengthy, often scathing metaphors. Meanwhile, Steven is looking for musicians with whom to start a band, but he's too afraid to follow through on it.
The letters in the paper catch the attention of Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay), a local art student who becomes Steven's fast friend. Other than Steven's musical prospects, they don't talk about much else. Linder is one of those characters who comes across as infinitely more interesting than the movie allows her to be (Indeed, the real Linder went on to have a career as an artist, although, again, you'd have to know that already, since the movie doesn't bother much with her). Like every other character in the movie, though, she's here for Steven—giving him vague support, while a few others provide obstacles.
Most of those obstacles consist of his need to live a "normal" life—familial obligations to provide for the household and a mind-numbing job at a tax office, where the boss (played by Graeme Hawley) is both a hard-nose and incredibly lenient (Steven is absent for days but only receives multiple warnings). The conflict is between normalcy, represented by the job and an uncultured co-worker named Christine (Jodie Comer), and his dream. Steven teams up with guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence), lucks his way into a band, and gets a huge ego-boost when gig and recording-session offers start coming from London.
Gill and Thacker's most astute observation of the character comes into focus when the prospects disappear: The biggest obstacle that Steven faces in his ascendancy in music is Steven himself. It's his ego, which makes him unappealing to a number of people. It's his fear of success, which prevents him from taking opportunities when they're right in front of him. It's his devotion to a sort of purity, which keeps him shut up in his museum of a room, surrounded by posters and clippings and his record collection, or has him listening to music on headphones when he's at a club.
The third act is devoted to a bout of depression that keeps Steven even more isolated. The point is clear, but it comes after a long period of seeing Steven as an ordinary guy and without seeing any of the qualities that make him unique. It's difficult to sympathize with the character as he's presented here, since the entirety of his struggle is offset by his sense of entitlement, his self-defeatism, his self-sabotage, and the air of superiority that he projects. All of these flaws could work in a movie that's critical of the man, but Gill isn't working in that mode. The filmmakers are obviously creating a sort of myth-breaking biography, but it's founded on the idea that their subject is a myth-like figure, whose talents don't need to be shown, because they're assumed to be understood and accepted as fact.
This story ends where a traditional biography might begin—with the formation of the Smiths, the band that made Morrissey a name. There's something to admire about the way Gill and Thacker avoid the obvious, but England Is Mine does so at the expense of anything that might make its subject stand out in any meaningful way.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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