Critics may never settle on which of the Smiths’s albums is their finest, but nearly everyone can agree that Morrissey is a douche. From calling the Chinese a subspecies of human, to publicly supporting UKIP leader Nigel Farage, to canceling tour dates on the flimsiest of excuses, there’s a laundry list of reasons why he wouldn’t land high on too many people’s list of musicians with whom they’d love to have a beer. Mercifully, we have Morrissey’s music, the complexity of which makes his petulant, often repugnant antics easier to bear. England Is Mine, however, fails to give a sense of how Morrissey learned to channel the thorniness of his personality into his lyrics, or the myriad ways his musical output counterbalances and complicates what would otherwise simply be a deeply unpleasant man.
Mark Gill’s film focuses on the Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) of the late 1970s, leading up to his first meeting with future Smiths bandmate Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston). Beginning with Steven as a timid, pessimistic megalomaniac reading Oscar Wilde and waiting for the world to give him the fame and prestige he thought he was owed, England Is Mine finds itself perpetually mired in its subject’s cyclical self-pity and unceasing arrogance. Aside from penning songs, poems, and bitchy letters to NME, Steven spends his time scoping out, with the help of his encouraging artist friend, Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay), prospective bands that are looking for a singer but for months refuses to even show up for any of the auditions.
England Is Mine’s first half obsesses over the crippling shyness that leaves Steven in a state of total stasis, but other than overcoming his general distaste for dealing with others, the young Morrissey presented here is already similar to the one the world would grow to love and hate. And when Steven begrudgingly takes on a desk job for Inland Revenue, Britain’s equivalent to the IRS, Gill clumsily incorporates office politics and comedy into your standard biopic formula, making light of Steven’s condescension toward his conformist coworkers. The film is acutely aware of Steven’s superiority complex and the contempt with which he seems to hold everyone aside from his mother and friends, but it also indulges his basest, self-flagellating impulses, never delving into the political or sexual contradictions that ultimately make him a fascinating albeit enervating public figure.
The film skirts along the surface of Steven’s abrasive personality without piercing the skin to see what led him to become Morrissey. Yet another fatality in the troubled musical biopic genre, England Is Mine is a tour ride through a legend’s formative years that’s more concerned with the familiar signposts than the intricacies of the scenery along the way. Its stagnant portrayal of Morrissey leaves him as a shallow amalgamation of moody affectations and the film perpetually on the verge of caricature. And as much as Morrissey the man may not deserve better, Morrissey the musician surely does.