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Review: England is Mine

Mark Gill’s feature-length directorial debut dramatises Morrissey’s pre-Smiths musings from 1978 to 1982. The life and times of the musical icon makes for entertaining viewing, but the canvas of late-’70s Manchester isn’t put to its best use in this tribute to the peculiar maverick.

England is Mine is easy on the eyes. Gill and his cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland did an admirable job of capturing Manchester’s plain glory. The kitchen sink realism which Morrissey poured into his lyrics oozes through the film. As the protagonist has a bleak moment, he fills a brown-transparent glass to overflowing, morosely watching the water brim into the sink, one can’t help but smile. These poetically ordinary moments ground the film well.

Often, however, the dramatic air was laid on too thick. There were times when I was unsure whether to laugh at or pity the young musician. I understood the adolescent worries and cynical reflections but hoped they would be a backdrop for something more. Watching the shy, unassuming and cynical Steven (Jack Lowden) stumble through life was interesting for a few scenes, but eventually became infuriating. I was reminded of the sinking feeling of watching David Brent in The Office lurching towards another error with inhuman indifference. But Brent is funny – the humour in England Is Mine didn’t always feel intentional.

At least this didn’t become a Morrissey musical. The soundtrack was well-chosen and succinct. Moments which needed no accompaniment gracefully had none. With all the grumbling and sneering, it was also mercy to not have any drawn-out montages. Although it was pre-Smiths, warm nods to the band’s lyrics abound, and the literary culture and feel of the lyrics were evidenced in Morrissey’s books and idols.

The strong cast did their best. Jack Lowden did a fantastic job of portraying Steven Morrissey’s unique outsider nature. The debonair, aloof acting was undiluted and strangely believable. Jessica Brown Findlay played Linder Sterling, Morrissey’s artist friend, bringing a lighter, more playful tone to the dreariness.

One of the major drawbacks was the rise-fall-redemption arc. Some of the film’s emotional peaks seemed to come out of nowhere and be under-explained. Before the historical meeting with Johnny Marr, Morrissey bounces back from a depressive phase as if by magic. It felt like the film toyed with a story but never quite shaped up to having one. I’m sure it was accurate to event, but it seemed self-indulgent.

This film lurches between the iconic and the absurd which means that Hall’s biopic of pre-fame Morrissey is ultimately lacking. The trials and tribulations of the angst-ridden Mancunian feel funny for the wrong reasons and are vacuous of meaning, although perhaps that was the point. Whatever the point, England is Mine is not a must-see film and more often than not made me think “Heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

England is Mine is in cinemas across the UK now. Image source: TheGuardian.com