Although I’m a fairly big fan of The Smiths I have to admit that it was never easy for me to listen to them because of Morrissey himself. It was even to the point I thought I hated the music of The Smiths, because I could never stand Morrissey as a person. I hate the sort of personality he carried, for he’s always struck me as an uptight tool who loves himself over all else. For this reason alone I was especially skeptical of the idea of a biopic being made about his early years, even for someone who listens to their music on a regular basis. I could only have imagined a biopic that was to be made about Morrissey would be one that never went into what I had always known him as, and to say the least – it is exactly what I got from England is Mine. It’s an ugly biopic that celebrates a singer whose personality is the exact opposite of what listening to their voice singing beautiful songs was like.
Covering the early years of Morrissey before the formation of The Smiths, England is Mine (a title taken from their song “Still Ill”) shows us a portrait of what the established singer was like before he ended up becoming the frontman of the band we have most recognized him for. Detailing his past at high school as a music critic, to his eventual discovery by Billy Duffy, there’s a more frustrating element coming into play when the identity of Morrissey seems lost within a conventional coming-of-age narrative. Among many fears that I would have had regarding how any film can portray a figure like Morrissey is just dumbing him down to an idea as simple as this, only resulting in what I would have most feared.
It was the fact that Morrissey merely being an angsty teenager who was looking for a way to reach out had only left a bad taste in my mouth because of what he’s grown to become now. He may indeed be a fantastic singer, but he’s always been an egotistical tool in my eyes – not the sort that was entertaining to watch, rather a hateful person was growing out. I only get the impression that Mark Gill seems to be aware of that aspect of Morrissey, considering how devoted he is to showing Morrissey as just someone who thought “differently” inside of a background that bores him. He seems to know that Morrissey hates everything around him, but he tries so hard to make this aspect of him resonate with the viewers. As a matter of fact, I only found myself all the more repulsed.
The oddest aspect to me, was that for a film that seems so intent on making a figure as arrogant as Morrissey an angsty teenager who didn’t fit in as a means of attracting viewers who “relate,” it never seems to go further in on showing why he was as much a songwriting genius as he was. It’s easy enough to say, for he and Johnny Marr had collectively written an entire collection of magnificent songs – but the creative process of Morrissey himself is never explored and is merely glanced over. If the artificiality of his personality could only have made itself all the more blatant from how it portrays him as a person, the fact we never see much of his creative process (other than the occasional reading into his own thoughts about anything around him) only makes for a more frustrating.
Maybe I’ll give some slack to the cast, because they aren’t too terrible even if they feel obviously phoned in. Jack Lowden could only have ever shown himself as any other teenager for a different movie and I feel like it would be easier to believe the sort of role that he’s playing. But that’s what feels so jarring about this experience, it takes what one knows and suddenly makes everything feel so safe. Even worse comes the set design which perfectly captures an era so that one would feel within the atmosphere that Morrissey is breathing under, because it quickly reminds you how fake everything is: for people who know Morrissey well enough would know this isn’t at all what he’s like up close, it’s just what they want to believe.
I feel if I had watched this before I became the Smiths fan that I am now, I’d have only found more reason to continue putting off their music altogether. At the very least I didn’t hear a Smiths song play to my own memory during this movie because I’d rather not be reminded of the sort of person that Morrissey is when I listen to the beautiful tunes of The Smiths. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, unless I was watching Control already knowing what Joy Division had meant to me – and even got me through. It was clear to me why Control had come along, for it served as a perfect eulogy yet told an equally harrowing story of a troubled genius. I don’t think Mark Gill picked up on any of that when telling Morrissey’s story, because it’s a movie that only cherry picks for small details and just reminds me of what I hate about Morrissey: snobbish, self-centered, ignorant, not the sort of person who I’d imagine would be singing such astounding songs.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Honlodge Productions.
Directed by Mark Gill
Screenplay by Mark Gill, William Thacker
Produced by Baldwin Li, Orian Williams
Starring Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay, Laurie Kynaston
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 94 minutes