England is Mine is an unofficial early-years biopic of Morrissey taking place in his pre-Smiths years of 1976 to 1982, with Jack Lowden taking on the unenviable task of bringing the master of misery to life. Brought to screen by director and co-writer Mark Gill to a vividly grim background of post-industrial Manchester, England is Mine attempts to depict and explain how an ultra-shy and despondent teenager became one of the world’s foremost songwriters.
We first meet Morrissey in 1976. A self-declared misunderstood bedroom poet, he spends his time avoiding the job market while writing terse letters to the NME about the inadequacies of local bands. As his parents’ relationship rapidly breaks down and heads towards divorce, Morrissey increasingly isolates himself from the people around him who he progressively views as beneath him, both moralistically and artistically. After a chance meeting with local artist Linder Sterling (Brown Findlay), he is unceremoniously thrust into the centre of the Manchester art scene. Morrissey, who at this point still resembles a young Alan Davies, continues to write poetry while holding down a job at the Inland Revenue and avoiding any chance of exposing his work to collaboration, particularly with an enthusiastic pre-Cult Billy Duffy.
England is Mine is an enjoyable film but never really succeeds in getting under the skin of its protagonist. Morrissey rarely comes across as more than the miserable awkward teenager who sees the world as a fumbling muddle desperately awaiting the artistic light of his creations. Lowden could literally be any one of us aged seventeen. Gill also struggles to avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded TV movie. Copyright issues serve up a constant niggle; the Sex Pistol’s seminal Free Trade Hall gig presents a fuzzy background image of Johnny Rotten but the songs are overdubbed with a George Formby track. Johnny Tillotson similarly stands in for Patty Smith later on, while Mott the Hoople seem to take default soundtrack duties for anything vaguely pre-Smiths related.
Saying all that, there are moments of fun, served up early on by Morrissey’s friend Anji Hardie – played excellently by Katherine Pearce – whose constant tirades – ‘Stop being a mard-arse’ – serve as attempts to force her friend into making musical contacts. Sterling also bags a few one-liners – ‘Your voice is kinda posh…are you from Bolton?’ – in her similar efforts to push him towards collaboration.
Despite Lowden’s excellent performance, taking Morrissey from a brutally shy mop-top to the quiff with a spark of confidence, England is Mine never really pulls out of first gear. Some sporadic moments of interest and lightness can’t make up for the sullenness of watching tiresome teenage bedroom angst. Strangely, it would have worked much better as a generic story of teenage artistic awkwardness, dumping the Morrissey angle altogether, as the story and performances wouldn’t have had the weight of expectation behind it.
England is Mine is a solid, agreeable film but hardcore Mozza fans hoping to find fresh nuggets of previously unknown pre-Smiths knowledge, will no doubt be disappointed. But then, they always are.
England Is Mine is out now on DVD and digital streaming services.
Review by Colin Lomas
Director: Mark Gill
Cast: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay, Katherine Pearce, Adam Lawrence, Simone Kirby
Running Time: 94 Minutes