A mid-tempo mope through the pre-Smiths years of indie icon Morrissey, Mark Gill’s feature debut England Is Mine struggles to evoke the atmosphere of its setting — Manchester, 1976-1982 — and to bring its tantalizingly enigmatic subject into satisfying focus. An unauthorized production unable to use either Morrissey’s songs on the soundtrack or his words in the screenplay — reportedly completed before the publication of his much-ballyhooed 2013 autobiography — the film will nevertheless exert nostalgic appeal for those many thousands of diehard Smiths/Morrissey fans at home in the U.K. and further afield.
A likely brief spin in British art houses will be followed by a more lucrative career as a small-screen offering, while international prospects may meanwhile be boosted by the fast-rising profile of star Jack Lowden, one of three co-leads in Christopher Nolan’s midsummer war epic Dunkirk.
Previously best known as the eponymous hero of golf-drama Tommy’s Honour, delicate-featured Lowden doesn’t much resemble the famously lantern-jawed Morrissey. And in the early stretches here — when the hyper-articulate, bookish lad is a mere 17 — Lowden looks every day of his 26 years. Ironically, he’s more teenager-ish in the last quarter, when Morrissey’s mop of hair gradually develops toward his distinctive, wildly influential pompadour.
Lowden does, however, manage a fair approximation of Morrissey’s mannerisms and distinctive downbeat vocal tones — mordantly, self-mockingly mournful. Seldom offscreen for long, he copes well with the requirements of a script that’s more concerned with avoiding certain potholes and (inescapable) comparisons than with carving its own creative course.
Building steadily up to the singer’s fateful hook-up with future Smiths collaborator Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston), who’s a disappointingly peripheral figure here, the screenplay is structured mainly around Morrissey’s relationships with females. He rather casually abandons early-teens gal-pal Anji (Katherine Pearce) in favor of spiky artist Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay, from Downton Abbey), a welcome, dynamic presence as the glamorous proto-goth who helps the introverted Bowie and Roxy Music fan to realize his aspirations as a writer-performer. Their literary skewed graveyard-bench chats (subject of Smiths favorite “Cemetry Gates”) exert a winsome charm and the two actors enjoy a believable chemistry.
But Gill (a 2014 Oscar nominee for his short film, The Voorman Problem) and co-writer William Thacker are conspicuously evasive about the teenager’s emotional/sexual development — or lack thereof — mirroring their subject’s decades-long coyness on his sexuality. Perhaps wary of lawsuits from the notoriously litigious star, the writers scatter occasional hints: the only song we see him perform onstage is a cover of his beloved New York Dolls’ Shangri-Las remake, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.”
They cautiously settle for a portrait of the artist as a celibate, perhaps even asexual young man, even when — in scenes played for droll humor — he’s on the receiving end of unlikely, determined advances from his attractive but conventional and philistine co-worker at a grim tax-office, Christine (Jodie Comer).
The hurdle faced by the scriptwriters — whose dialogue is peppered with some distracting, Americanese anachronisms — is that Morrissey’s life before his sudden Smiths breakout in 1983 wasn’t particularly dramatic. Even the breakup of his Irish-immigrant parents’ marriage, culminating in the departure of his glum father (Peter McDonald) from the family home in December 1976, is presented in decidedly muted fashion.
Morrissey junior endures disgruntlement and humiliation at work: “Why can’t you be more like everybody else?” fumes his caricature of a boss (Graeme Hawley). But there’s certainly nothing to compare with the colorful, tragedy-haunted early lives depicted in the picture’s most obvious predecessors: Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy (2009) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), about John Lennon and Ian Curtis, respectively. And nor do tentative newcomers Gill and Thacker attempt anything like the wild chutzpah of such earlier forebears as Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) or Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998).
The shadow of Control — a radically more successful immersion in the working-class music-scene of northwest England in the late 1970s — hangs especially heavily over England Is Mine, particularly in the second half when Morrissey’s creative frustrations send him into a downspin of depression, visually represented by repeated images of swirling waters. It’s only at this crackup-and-rebirth stage that his mother Elizabeth (Simone Kirby) plays much of a role, although Gill and Thacker (seemingly wary of Nowhere Boy comparisons) downplay the crucial creative influence of this librarian whose passion for her countryman Oscar Wilde was transmitted in full to her sponge-like offspring.
Instead, Gill emphasizes the musical environment that guided Morrissey’s path toward his own recording career, working with the excellent music supervisor Ian Neil to craft an eclectic soundtrack that stretches from George Formby to 1960s girl groups. This is a smart creative solution to the non-availability of Smiths/Morrissey tracks, but otherwise the various restrictions and evident budgetary restraints tend to work against the necessary verisimilitude.
England Is Mine is an unremarkable-looking picture on the whole, with serviceable widescreen cinematography by veteran Nic Knowland, whose early credits include similar rise-to-fame exercises The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and Take It Or Leave It (1981). Chronicling the rise to fame of the Sex Pistols and Madness, respectively, in fanciful, quasi-documentary style, both films are buoyed by the kind of brio and enthusiastic confidence notably lacking from Gill’s half-cocked affair.
Production company: Honlodge
Cast: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay, Simone Kirby, Adam Lawrence, Jodie Comer, Graeme Hawley, Laurie Kynaston
Director: Mark Gill
Screenwriters: Mark Gill, William Thacker
Producers: Baldwin Li, Orian Williams
Director of photography: Nic Knowland
Production designer: Helen Watson
Costume designers: Yvonne Duckett, Oliver Garcia
Music: Richard Skelton
Editor: Adam Biskupski
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival (closing)
Sales: HanWay Films