RELEASE DATE: August 25, 2017
DIRECTOR: Mark Gill
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 95 minutes
If you showed England is Mine to someone who had no idea who Morrissey was, they still would have no idea who he was 90 minutes later. On paper, it’s the story of his early days as a disaffected young man in 1970s Manchester, but with a few changes, it could have been about anyone, anywhere, at any time. Director/co-writer Mark Gill is aware of the tendency for movies about living people to deify their subjects and strives to avoid that, but he overcompensates. The entire project comes off as generic.
The world is full aspiring creators who wish to give back to humanity. Some of them become famous, but most never do. What gave Steven Patrick Morrissey the edge? I don’t think the film knows.
Gill moves his protagonist around like a sounding board for dramatic ideas. He knows that this is a well-rounded man who, in one sentence, could describe his idolization of both Oscar Wilde and James Dean. But here is a film made up of shortcuts – narrated monologues as a substitute for sadness, scribbling on notepads as a substitute for creativity, passive-aggressive conversations with unemployment center workers as a substitute for volatility. A good biography doesn’t need to discuss the heights of fame and fortune its subject reaches, but there needs to be a study that goes deeper than what you can get from skimming a Wikipedia article.
This is not the fault of Jack Lowden, who plays the lead role. He makes a great effort to understand the character, to embody the youthful conflict and pulverized perspectives that Steven would have felt, but he’s working with a screenplay that takes everything at face value. Characters say exactly what’s on their mind at a given moment, spell out their personalities and their flaws within seconds of their introduction, and aren’t given the chance to grow. A heart-to-heart talk that Steven has with his mother (Simone Kirby) near the end of the movie is kind and affecting in its intent but is scripted with the primary motive of pushing onward to the epilogue and the credits.
England is Mine is less of a portrait of the artist as a young man and more like a vague acknowledgement that he had to have been young once. Who is it made for? Longtime fans know the basics of his life story and will be disappointed by the fact that the film does not contain a single song written by Morrissey.
Newcomers who don’t know much about him won’t learn how he became who he is today. It is a movie where development is implied and personal impact is marked with a tiny asterisk. There are exactly two moments that reference the formation of The Smiths – one about halfway through and one other, which is the last thing we see. Go all in or all out. Don’t muddle it up.
In any case, the film is gorgeously shot, and it evokes a sense of time and place. There’s no muddling there. Nick Knowland, a great cinematographer, uses soft lighting of all colors that highlight the characters faces and underscores their emotions. It’s the single most striking asset that England is Mine has because it all builds up to a few occasions in which we’re transported into Steven’s headspace. There are some concert scenes that really work too, and we wait for a great singularity to take place that will solidify what the movie has been hinting at – how frustrating it is when this never happens.
Borrowing its title from a Smiths lyric, England is Mine is an uncharacteristically prescient and upfront name for a movie that isn’t even a fraction as bold. The great stuff feels wasted.
You can have your DP stage every beautiful scene he can think of, accentuating faces and objects and settings, and you can inspire the creation of a zillion Tumblr posts from here to eternity. You can have your star give it everything he’s got and figure out the best version of young Morrissey that he can. But unless everything else is right there, with a script giving them thoughtful, unique material to bring to life, they’re just points of light that manage to seep through a fog that never clears.