A biopic about the early days of Morrissey is a portrait of the artist as a young mope. It’s “authentic,” but where’s the fire?
“England Is Mine” is a biopic about the early days of Morrissey, the lead singer of the Smiths, that features two minutes of Morrissey singing and 97 minutes of Morrissey moping. There are Morrissey fans who would swear that makes it one of the most accurate biopics ever made. Yet even for some of us who are Smiths believers, the movie is a bit much. At certain points in the middle of it, you may think “I’m miserable now,” though not in the way that Morrissey had in mind.
In the ’80s, everyone loved to talk about how Morrissey was the most sensitive and misunderstood guy on the planet. He had quite an image: exquisitely depressed, a swooning (but celibate!) gay vegetarian wallflower, awash in the poetic romance of self-pity. I was shocked when I finally saw him onstage, because he was every inch a rock star — like a statue by Michelangelo who swayed, his dark hair tall but trim at the nape of the neck (a style as shockingly “straight,” in its way, as Bryan Ferry’s was in the early ’70s), with movements that expressed the reverent ecstasy that his lyrics kept telling you life had denied him. But then, that was the beautiful yin-and-yang of Morrissey: He fashioned terminal shyness into a rebel gesture, and made a lot of masochistically alienated too-smart-for-the-room kids feel as if they, too, had a voice.
His own voice was gorgeous, a sweetly plaintive tenor that could reach up and carry you away, to the point that it almost didn’t matter if his melodies all sounded like they were improvised around the same three notes (kind of like “Three Blind Mice” with variations). All that began to coalesce in 1982, when Morrissey, who had just turned 23, teamed up with Johnny Marr (only 19 at the time), who caressed his guitar into producing roiling sunlit waves of sound.
“England Is Mine,” however, is set mostly in the late ’70s, when Morrissey was still just Steven Morrissey, an aimless, morosely buttoned-up teenager from a working-class Irish family in Manchester, trying to fit in even though it felt like death to him. The movie’s star, Jack Lowden, is one of the actors from “Dunkirk,” and when you see him here you think: Yes, he looks like he could be one of 25 different British soldiers from “Dunkirk.” As Steven, Lowden wears longish curly hair and big glasses that make him look like a ’70s-slacker version of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent, with a dash of Daniel Day-Lewis. The young Morrissey was, of course, quite handsome, but in a puckish-lipped, dark-eyebrowed, lantern-jawed black-Irish way. Lowden comes off more like a serenely good-looking jock who hasn’t found the right sport yet. His Steven skulks around, writing lyrics in his diary-notebook and fighting off the contempt of his father, who soon splits for good.
Steven is a shrinking violet, a bored aesthete, and a snob, though not necessarily in that order. He’s a music fan (he attends a Sex Pistols gig and writes scathing rock reviews in the form of letters to punk fanzines), but from the movie you’d never guess that this was someone who spun an entire book out of his obsession with the New York Dolls. Even in the privacy of his bedroom, where he stretches out his arms in front of an imagined audience, we don’t see rock ‘n’ roll taking Steven over. When Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence), who will briefly become his bandmate in the Nosebleeds, is rifling through Steven’s albums and comments on the first Clash LP by saying that he likes Joe Strummer’s lyrics, Steven replies, “Don’t you find him rather schematic in his self-flagellating worldview?” Well, yes, of course, but no future lead singer should be that hard to please.
Steven performs a club gig with the Nosebleeds, and the movie, for one song, sparks to life. A record company comes into the picture, but it hires Billy and passes on Steven, an event that sends the singer into a tailspin of depression that doesn’t make for much drama. At his office job, Steven displays a boredom with everything he’s doing that doesn’t exactly endear him to his colleagues — though one, the comely Christine (Jodie Comer), looks past his shyness; she doesn’t even think twice when he refuses to come up to her flat for a late-night drink. But those in the audience may wonder, since this painful reticence is virtually the only sign of Steven’s sexuality. “England Is Mine” is fussy and prudish — about erotic longing, and about the rock ‘n’ roll that gives form to it. Even the film’s title is off. It was originally set to be called “Steven,” but that non-money title has been replaced by one that T.S. Eliot would have rejected for being too stuffy.
At this point, there’s an entire genre of movies about pop musicians before they got famous. The best of them is “Backbeat” (1994), which told the story of the Beatles in their raw Hamburg, Germany, prime with volcanic authenticity. “Greetings from Tim Buckley” (2012) squeezed a bauble of indie-rock essence out of Jeff Buckley’s journey to embrace his father’s legacy. But “England Is Mine” just feels like a stopgap movie made by people who couldn’t afford to get the rights to the Smiths’ catalogue. The poster calls it a meditation “on becoming Morrissey,” but it would be more accurate to describe it as a movie about waiting around dejectedly until there’s nothing left to do but become Morrissey. In the final scene, set in 1982, Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) knocks on Steven’s front door, and it’s hard not to feel that the film you really want to see is just getting started.