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If you have five seconds to spare, then I’ll tell you the story of my life
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
That’s the story of my life.

~ From “Half A Person” written by Steven Morrissey and Johnny Marr
 

A biographical film about famous subjects that are still alive and have not authorised said epic, goes in with two strikes against it: The creators must find a way to make recognisable the life and legacy of an artist who is ready and waiting to sue the pants off any production that cuts too close to sore subjects or scandals.  In the case of musicians, filmmakers often must convey the art that made that subject’s name without actually being allowed to use their music.  That lack of an instant soundtrack also cuts into the appeal for that artist’s fanbase, potentially a built-in audience for the project.  These are some of the challenges faced by ENGLAND IS MINE, and its look at the early life of the 1980’s emo-prototype, king of mope rock, The Smiths’ leader, Steven Morrissey.  

The semi-permanent gray that clouds the skies over a mid-seventies Stretford seem less a meteorological phenomenon than a culmination of the population’s collective mood.  Critically low employment, economic and political woes have cast a pall over the United Kingdom, and one of the only bright spots in the gloom for a Manchester teen is music.  By 1976, young Steven Morrissey is anchored by an unlikely love of sixties American Soul and girl groups, which along with the homegrown social revolution of Punk, shove away middle of the road cobwebs that the brief Glam craze did not expel.  The misfit’s days are happiest locked away with his precious vinyl and cassette collection, while his nights are spent tearing apart the stolid local music scene in meticulously-typed letters to the New Musical Express.  The music also drowns out the splintering of his family as his parents separate, leaving Steven with a sudden imperative to become the man of the house, with all its financial obligations.

The harness of mediocre mundanity chafes at Steven’s artistic sensibilities, and the innate inkling he’s meant for something more; if only he could figure out what that was.  Years of scribblings pithy observations and acerbic comments about the plebs in his path in a precious journal have the sense of poetry, or perish forbid, song lyrics, but the shaggy-haired boy is utterly petrified at the thought of getting up on the stage, as so many of those he’s excoriated in print have done before him.  His perception of the limitations of not only life around him, but the damage rendered by his own sharp tongue, carelessly wounding the precious few he cares for, leaves Steven friendless.  It isn’t until after he meets Linder, an artist with similar counterculture views and a competitive love of poetry, that Steven finds some acceptance and a modicum of confidence.  It’s with that new confidence that Steven finally takes the plunge and meets guitarist Billy Duffy.  The slow nurturing of that relationship finds Steven finally able to share his lyrics and voice with Duffy, resulting in his first band, called The Nosebleeds and his coincidental meeting with another guitarist, a young bloke called Johnny Marr.

What to do when you’re presenting a film about the leader of one of the greatest bands of its age, but cannot use a single note of any of his songs?  ENGLAND IS MINE cleverly connects the dots between Morrissey’s panoramic lyrics and iconography, using them as the roadmap for the piece.  Anyone who’s heard “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” from The Smiths’ 1986 album, The Queen is Dead, will have the tune about a pompous supervisor fairly banging through their ears, as Steven’s boss during his short, painful stint at Inland Revenue comes to wits end with the younger man’s utter disregard for his authority. (Actually that whole section of his life could be defined by 1984’s "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now")  Linder and Steven literally sit in a cemetery and have a poetry quote battle (No Keats and Yates employed, though “weird lover Wilde” makes the cut.), whilst she holds a hatful of gladiolas.  Steven’s awkward attempts at nightlife and socialising will bring to mind the group’s magnum opus, “How Soon is Now?,” and its desperate, lonely yearnings.

Sensitive and unironic, Jack Lowden anchors ENGLAND IS MINE with his true and rich performance as the boy who would become Moz.  Lowden makes his character’s snide, often-catty acidity easier to take than it might have been from his real-life avatar.  Lowden gives balance and depth with regard to Morrissey’s infamous scathing wit and “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” romanticism.

A notable omission in the film is the lack of any reference to Steven’s sexuality.  We see him decline the affections of one overamorous female co-worker (Who anyone with sense would’ve run from, really). While there might be a frisson of infatuation one could squint and glean from Steven’s trusting attachment to Billy Duffy, as well as his devastation after the guitarist takes an offer to join a London band, there is almost nothing to imply the singer’s attractions.  Indeed, his close relationship with his dashing muse/partner-in-crime Linder feels like the closest thing to a romance in the film, but even that doesn’t ring quite true when compared to the palpable, aching desire for love expressed in so many of The Smiths’ songs.  While at The Smiths’ peak, Morrissey famously claimed to be celibate, and much of their following was borne out of the singer’s gender fluidity.  He spoke to an entire generation that couldn’t find a voice during those years of Thatcher, Reagan, and overmoussed, pastel-coloured capitalism.  Perhaps our one opportunity to hear actor Lowden full out in a more-than-fair imitation of his subject’s distinctive vocal style (Sadly sans choreography) performing a cover of the Shangri-Las’ classic, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” during his first gig with The Nosebleeds, is meant to convey that bit of sexual rebellion.

ENGLAND IS MINE feels cleverly meta in its portrayal of those dreary years in England, which not only influenced Morrissey by simply living in them, but in his idolisation of the “kitchen sink” dramas of the sixties; those gritty, uniquely British tales of hard-scrabbling, working class characters.  This film could be one of those, in its study of a misfit sure he’s meant for fame and fortune, chained to an unsatisfying, mundane living, having to endure the slights of the small-minded unwashed, who couldn’t tell Voltaire from Moličre.  The film does nicely capture through Steven’s frustrated eyes, those gray, depressing years under Margaret Thatcher that led to one of England’s most exciting and energised cultural eras.

While not having the access to the music so signature to its subject’s story, ENGLAND IS MINE does an admirable job of working around that major roadblock to get to the heart and emotion from whence our star would shine.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug. 19th, 2017

 

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Stills Courtesy of  Cleopatra Entertainment

 

 

 

 

 

 

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