There was one single moment in Manchester music history that seemed to galvanize every denizen with even the slightest inclination to start a band: June 4, 1976, when the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall. This historic gig not only appears in Tony Wilson-centric 24 Hour Party People, but also another important biopic about the post-punk movement: Control. Centered on the Ian Curtis’ (Sam Riley) struggle with epilepsy, the formation of Joy Division and his troubled relationship with his wife, Debbie Woodruff (Samantha Morton), Control has some strong overlap with the timeline that takes place in England Is Mine. Further, both Curtis and Morrissey endured the strife of being products of the Manchester machine, a dreary Northern juggernaut that favored only conventional worker bees rather than the encouragement of any sort of artistic leanings. This oppressive feeling is patently what leaves Morrissey feeling inert for so long, a sentiment captured by director Mark Gill’s introduction, featuring the crashing waves of the River Irwell churning with the same intensity possessed inwardly by Morrissey as he delivers a moody voiceover.
Jack Lowden, who looks only occasionally like Morrissey in very particular camera angles and is probably not the best casting choice by lack of virtue of being Scottish alone, does an adequate job of emulating the pained mannerisms of Steven, so difficult to prod into doing much of anything–even the things he likes. One supposes that’s why it takes him all the way until the age of twenty-three–with a little help and hindrance from Diazepam–to actually get started at his rock n’ roll dreams.
Focused heavily on his friendship with Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay, looking like a young Helena Bonham Carter), frontwoman for the band Ludus and, later, a visual artist of renown, England Is Mine‘s aim seems to be to prove that “You’ve Got Everything Now” lyric (as opposed to the “Still Ill” one the title hails from), “I’m too shy.” And, indeed, Steven, as he’s known pre-fame comes across as painfully so, barely able to speak with anyone who isn’t a nurturing and coddling female. His especial shyness around attractive men is the only subtle indication we get of Gill’s take on Morrissey’s asexual homosexuality.
The first female comrade we’re introduced to, Anji Hardie (Katherine Pearce), is initially willing to be his cheerleader, spurring him to contact one of the only guitarists with a personal ad that moves him, Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence). He remains hesitant to do so, preferring to remain armed with Monsters of the Moors (one of the first songs Morrissey wrote with Marr was “Suffer Little Children,” about the illustrious moors murders) and a record collection that would make any 60s teen girl swoon. It is thus that Morrissey inhabits his own world. One he isn’t very keen on leaving to get a job at first a stodgy insurance company and then a hospital where he deals far too often with death for someone of his already somber temperament. Though he’s lost touch with Anji, a new woman, Linder Sterling, enters his life after admitting to be the one to write back to one of his letters in a local magazine, “Steven Morrissey must like the sound of his own voice.” And it’s true, there can be no denying that strongly intermixed with the self-loathing and loathing of others is a hint o’ narcissism. Hence his co-worker, Christine (Jodie Comer), mocking him when she unearths the line from his journal, “I’m tired of being an undiscovered genius.”
After his brief stint with Billy Duffy in The Nosebleeds, young Morrissey gets a taste of the only feeling that truly makes him happy, being onstage. Naively thinking that his first gig will garner him the same ticket to London-based legitimacy as Billy, Morrissey is rudely awakened by the plot twist that their prospective manager only wants Billy, not Morrissey. To make matters worse, Linder has just landed an art gallery exhibition in London, where she’ll be moving to for the foreseeable future. Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston, giving the guitarist a decent self-effacing portrayal), a friend of Billy’s that Morrissey initially meets at a Patti Smith Group show, is what ultimately serves to pull Morrissey out of his deep depression. These small details–like the Patti Smith Group poster in the background–are what serve to lend the most authenticity to England Is Mine. Between posters of Oscar Wilde, t-shirts of The New York Dolls, avid listening to of The Shangri-Las and reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, there are plenty of nuances to indicate just exactly the type of bloke Morrissey was as a youth. Closely following the facts presented in Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance, the biography by Johnny Rogan that Morrissey notoriously maligned, there can be no refuting that, for as stagnant and meandering as England Is Mine might appear to non-The Smiths devotees, it is a pure account of the slow, painful process that was becoming Morrissey, or rather being able to turn the maudlin and morose Morrissey he had always been comfortable with into a bankable symbol of brooding unattainability. Even so, one can’t help but feel that Control is the better executed between the two biopics. It did, at the very minimum, include the participation of all the major players involved, including Deborah Curtis, Tony Wilson and former members of Joy Division providing music for the soundtrack in their New Order incarnation. Even Ian’s daughter, Natalie, makes a cameo as an extra in the crowd at one of the gigs. England Is Mine, on the other hand, doesn’t even have the luxury of employing any of Morrissey’s lyrics or quotes. Even so, Gill and co-writer William Thacker (yes, Hugh Grant’s name in Notting Hill) manage to lend a genuineness to the film that perhaps a teenage Morrissey would have appreciated.
The final scene of the film ends, technically, when everything really begins for The Smiths. And maybe there’s no better stopping point. We all know how it went from there–the arguments, the contempt for Rough Trade, the breakup. The fact that England Is Mine is an unauthorized portrait of the patron saint of misery is inevitably yet another source of feeling violated to Morrissey, the same man who went on for roughly half of his autobiography about legal battles with Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. Yet, one can’t help but marvel at the well-researched, true to the slowness of fame coming (pre-internet) nature of the film. It’s certainly a more accurate portrait of “early days” than the impending Madonna biopic, Blond Ambition, not even made with the benefit of a fan’s love. So at least Morrissey can take comfort in that, what with his widely known vitriol for “McDonna.”