It used to be the case that most biopics of creative people included the same tired conventions. The standard method of depicting artistic endeavour, for example, could be found in the familiar shot, applicable to writers and composers alike, in which the subject was shown hunched over desk or piano while scrunched-up early drafts littered the floor around them. Cinema has moved on since then. There is no excuse now for putting such limits on interpretations of the creative process. Gainsbourg, for instance, includes an animated sequence in which Serge Gainsbourg swims among chain-smoking fish; it later shows him being menaced by a four-armed antisemitic caricature that tears itself loose from a Nazi propaganda poster. Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There features seven different actors, including Cate Blanchett, representing different aspects of Bob Dylan (whose name is never even mentioned in the movie).
Ken Russell blazed a trail in the early 1970s for the irreverent or unconventional biopic (Savage Messiah, Lisztomania) but probably the most radical in all of cinema is François Girard’s 1993 Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which breaks the Canadian pianist’s intense life into concentrated fragments, leaving the assembly to the viewer. It was particularly inspired of Girard to refrain from showing Gould’s fingers making contact with the piano keys. “I didn’t know how to show [his] distinctive playing style, so I decided not to show it at all,” he said in 2010. “How would you get, say, an actor today to play tennis on film like Rafael Nadal? You couldn’t. My advice for anyone planning to tell Nadal’s life story would be: stay away from the tennis court.”
Watching England Is Mine, which pieces together the early life of the singer and songwriter Morrissey (played by Jack Lowden) back when his surname was still preceded by “Steven” and “Patrick”, is enough to make you suspect that the bad old days are here again. If you were being really generous, you might argue that the film’s retro approach is a deliberate attempt to evoke the nostalgic mindset to which Morrissey himself is prone.
But I don’t think the makers of England Is Mine deserve our generosity. Their film is drably literal-minded in the obvious connections it draws between the artist and his life. Though it stops just short of showing the formation of the Smiths, it sprinkles fragments of future Smiths lyrics through the screenplay and imagines his bedroom walls plastered in pictures of all the influential figures (Oscar Wilde, James Dean) whom he would later reference in his songs, interviews and videos. Rather than viewing him as an ordinary person whose life was not preordained, it starts from what we know and works backwards. Here he is taking A Taste of Honey off the library shelf. (That play would inform the lyrics of “Reel Around the Fountain.”) Here he is being quizzed by his father about whether he has a job (“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”) and then, when he finds one, being berated by his philistine boss (“Frankly, Mr Shankly”). Oh look, he’s got a book about the Moors Murderers. That must have helped him to write “Suffer Little Children.”
There are some howlers in the script but what is most dispiriting is the director Mark Gill’s inability to inhabit, comprehend or dramatise his subject. There isn’t a single cinematic idea in the entire movie; nothing to distinguish it from a radio play on the same subject. And — stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before — the anguished-genius-at-his-typewriter scene even makes an unwelcome comeback, complete with balls of paper carefully positioned all over the carpet.
Another new biopic, Maudie, benefits from both the relative unfamiliarity of the subject (the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis), a keener sense of space and location (Nova Scotia to be precise) and detailed performances by Sally Hawkins, as Maud, and Ethan Hawke as Everett, the rough-hewn fish peddler who hires her as a live-in housekeeper and eventually marries her. The story has been subject to some conflations and a good deal of cosmetic softening; Everett did not perhaps make as comprehensive a journey from brutishness to beneficence as the film leads us to believe, while the real Maud (shown briefly at the end in footage shot shortly before her death in 1970) was more severely constricted by her lifelong arthritis than she is shown to be on screen.
But the film works as cinema because it allows her art — naive paintings daubed on walls and pieces of wood — to emerge naturally out of story, character and environment, rather than retroactively imposing the sort of hindsight that colours England Is Mine. The Morrissey film fails because it tries to boil art down to a tangible cause-and-effect process when it can only be something more diffuse. “It’s important for biopics to challenge the idea that there’s a fixed interpretation,” the screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce once said. “There might be a definitive truth about the partition of Poland, but not about a human being.”
England Is Mine and Maudie are released 4th August