I can genuinely remember the very first time I heard Morrissey’s voice. The year was 1985 and I was sitting on a coach en route to school straining to listen to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, which the driver piped through the coach’s speakers at frustratingly low volume every morning.
It was love at first listen. Up to then I’d been fed a steady diet of Howard Jones, Duran Duran and Nik Kershaw. What was this beautiful noise, breaking into a yodel at one point and like nothing I’d ever heard before? It took a week or two of listening out for it to be played again before I discovered who was making this wonderful sound - the song was The Boy with the Thorn in His Side and the band was The Smiths. I’ve loved them ever since.
Writer-director Mark Gill’s film England Is Mine (a line taken from The Smiths’ song Still Ill - “England is mine and it owes me a living”) about a pre-fame Steven Patrick Morrissey (played by Jack Lowden) is, therefore in my case, very much preaching to the converted.
The first thing to be said is that Lowden, recently seen as a fighter-pilot in Dunkirk, puts in a highly commendable and skilful performance in a role laden with potential pitfalls. His mannerisms and voice are exactly how you’d imagine a young Morrissey to be, but it never feels like he’s about to step into an episode of Stars in Their Eyes. It could have been truly awful, and it’s to his great credit that it isn’t.
The second thing to be said is that the film perfectly captures the look and feel of Manchester in the late 70s and early 80s, described by Morrissey in the opening lines of his autobiography as ‘…streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you…where everything lies wherever it was left one hundred years ago.’
Those, then, are the film’s strong points, but does it justify an hour and a half of your time in a cinema? The answer, sadly, unless you’re a Smiths fan, is no it doesn’t.
A key problem is that not a great deal happens to Morrissey before The Smiths. He types angry letters to The NME in his bedroom, he scribbles lyrics in a notebook, he see The Sex Pistols at Manchester Free Trade Hall, he works a mind-numbingly dull job in a tax office, he has a brief moment of early local success as singer for punk outfit The Nosebleeds - all formative experiences, no doubt, but none of it gets the pulse racing in the way Gill portrays it on screen.
For Smiths devotees there are subtle references only they’d understand, the removal of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey from a library bookshelf an obvious one that springs to mind, but the very best biographical films expand out to grip viewers who previously had no particular interest or appreciation of the subject. I can’t imagine England Is Mine achieving that.
Another issue is that, while the film captures the atmosphere of the time, it doesn’t feel remotely cinematic. It would be fine as a BBC2 drama, but it visually fails to deliver as a film in the purest sense of the word.
Ultimately, England is Mine is really about being one of life’s outsiders faced with the realisation that it’s all or nothing - achieve your highly unlikely artistic goal or face a lifetime of spirit-crushing misery, because nothing else can ever satisfy you. It’s a commendable effort at capturing the early life and influences of one of undoubtedly (whatever your opinion of him) modern music’s most original and influential artists. Tantalisingly, though, it’s not quite as good as you want it to be - which is something that could very rarely be said of a Smiths song.