Morrissey already wrote his biography in the 2013 Penguin Classic titled Autobiography, but also in his songs, which are something more—imaginative, confessional observations. What filmmaker can compete with that?
In the new bio-pic England Is Mine, director-writer Mark Gill attempts what comic books have popularized as an origin myth by dramatizing Morrissey’s life story before he actualized himself. It’s not the musical, romantic, philosophical or even historical story we expect (“Music, you see, is the key” Morrissey wrote on Page 9). This film is strangely celibate, a tribute that stays out of the way of Morrissey’s own charisma and self-mythologizing.
Gill reveals no clues to the myth’s deliberate sexual ambiguity (which was never all that mysterious). To anyone with eyes and ears, Morrissey’s full humanity has always been “out.” In the film, Steven Patrick Morrissey (played by Jack Lowdon) does not so much as look upon another person with romantic longing—not the nubile guitarist Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence) who first recognizes his talent in hometown Manchester, not the provocative aspiring artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay) who encourages his independence and not the young musician Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) who comes calling to start a band. All misery and frustration, this early portrayal of the Mancunian destined to wake up pop culture as Morrissey, lead singer-songwriter of The Smiths, gives no clue to the future sexual, romantic, musical insurgent.
If England Is Mine was “inspired” by its subject (as film adaptations often claim), it might have resembled counterculture bio-pics like Prick Up Your Ears (about gay playwright Joe Orton) or Sid and Nancy. Instead, writer-director Mark Gill has made a soft-headed recreation of a pop idol’s early life that also honeys the working class atmosphere of 1970s Manchester and the burgeoning punk music scene in which a new generation moved toward radical liberation.
Unfortunately, Gill’s disappointing approach comes at the same moment Morrissey has released his most radical (so far) solo album, the personal-political aural spectacle, Low in High School. It’s a thorough accounting of millennial disorder that, song by song, chronicles our current political disorientation and aligns it with disaffected romantic consciousness. (“See the effect of sexual neglect,” Morrissey sings on the semi-autobiographical track “Jacky’s Only Happen When She’s Up on the Stage.”)
A Morrissey bio-pic should establish the identity of an artist who has given voice to the sexual part of one’s self, speaking out against restraints on feeling and thinking.
The social aspect of Morrissey’s art is similar to the national identity claimed by his historical equals from Oscar Wilde to Graham Greene whose 1935 novel England Made Me (filmed in 1973) set a precedent for the phrase “England Is Mine.” (That title phrase preceded a memorable societal claim “…and it owes me a living” in the 1984 Smiths song “Still Ill” where Morrissey first articulated his query “Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know.” It was an early presentation of the glandular and intellectual responses, private and political conflict of Low in High School.)
While showing the frustrations of workaday life as young Morrissey toils in bureaucratic office work by day and longing to be a poet and singer at night, it’s too bad Gill didn’t opt for the black-and-white kitchen-sink realism that Morrissey has fetishized on different Smiths album covers (saluting ‘60s films like Saturday Night Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey). Instead, Gill’s full color palette suggests an old Kodachrome snapshot that reveals nothing—not even the atmospheric Englishness that the pop band Saint Etienne lovingly return to in songs like “Avenue” and the Finisterre, Tales from Turnpike House and Home Counties albums which were Smiths-inspired brainwaves. (Saint Etienne cites the film 1964 Billy Liar, whose Tom Courtney-Julie Christie rapport is briefly recalled in Lowdon and Findlay’s boy-and-unattainable-muse friendship here.)
A pre-Smiths Morrissey figure should be like Peter Lorre’s Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s 1935 Crime and Punishment, one of the most cagily intelligent, charismatic and introverted characterizations in movie history. His pride, disdain and emotionalism were as memorably witty as “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” Sternberg’s visual style sensualized the heroism and hubris—an ideal approach that Anton Corbijn made banal in the b&w Ian Curtis/Joy Division bio-pic Control. Gill avoids that convention yet, still, falls into banality with the recurring image of churning seas as viewed from a suicidal perch.
England is Mine ends when Morrissey approaches Johnny Marr, apprehending his own life, claiming the “living” his country owes him. That’s therapeutic yet Gill’s essential mistake is to deprive us of the feelings Morrissey described when the word “queer” first appears in Autobiography (on page 13).
In the opening music video montage of Morrissey’s current tour, he uses a ‘60s clip of Dionne Warwick singing “Walk On By” in which her final declaration “Accept me for what I am. Accept me for the things that I do” is still more startling than any scene in England Is Mine. It’s an origin myth lacking a crucial Found-Out moment.