England Is Mine: the making of Morrissey, or a portrait of the artist as a young wimp?

The film avoids controversy, but it ends up bland in a way that is probably its downfall.

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It is with some trepidation that I write about the new Morrissey biopic, England Is Mine, knowing that it’s not hard to say the wrong thing about Morrissey and fall foul either of his lawyers or his legions of still-adoring fans. Journalists have come a cropper and even I, after a throwaway remark made donkey’s years ago, found myself added to the list of scores that had to be settled in his recent Autobiography, a book that reminded me of nothing so much as Father Ted’s Golden Cleric acceptance speech: “And now we move on to liars…”

I don’t know how Morrissey feels about this film, so I can’t tell in which direction to swerve in order to avoid causing offence. Oh, who cares anyway? The title seems provocative at first glance, touching as it does on the Little Englander side that has been so inflammatory and led him into so much trouble. But the director Mark Gill doesn’t delve and the title just sits there unexamined. The film avoids controversy but it ends up bland in a way that is probably its downfall.

The teenage years of Morrissey (played by Jack Lowden) are laid out for us in all their drab glory, reminding us of other lines from “Still Ill”, the song that provides the film’s title – such as “There are brighter sides to life/And I should know because I’ve seen them/But not very often” – that leapt out when we first heard them. That declamatory wordiness, with its heady mix of self-pity and wit, made Morrissey seem the archetypal underdog. Spouting teenage philosophy and irreverence, longing for romance and sex, he was full of self-dramatising self-deprecation and leavened it all with his waspish humour.

It was brilliant writing and made you wonder, “Where did this unique voice spring from?” I’m afraid the film fails to answer that. Morrissey’s key friendship – which reflects so well on him as a teenage boy – was with Linder Sterling, an artist and member of the band Ludus. In real life, Linder was pretty uncompromising, even by punk standards, and wore a meat dress decades before Lady Gaga, which she then whipped aside onstage to reveal a large, black dildo. She made “menstrual jewellery”, designed to resemble bloodied tampons. I remember an interview in which she talked about menstruation, leading the journalist to ask if she’d ever done a gig while on her period. “Yeah, tonight,” she said. You could feel the glow of the journalist’s blush spreading out at you from the pages.

In the film, her band is never mentioned, the art only briefly glimpsed and she’s a pretty girl (Jessica Brown Findlay) with slightly punky eyeliner; a top-of-the-class art student who quotes poetry all day long. They make a twee couple, when I suspect in real life they were anything but. The tone of the film is sweet and tender, a bit coy, a bit defanged. No one has any sex, or even talks about it, and though both Oscar Wilde and James Dean loom over Moz in his bed, he snogs no one, boy or girl, and we get no sense that he wants to.

It’s all a bit “portrait of the artist as a young wimp”. I’m sure he was shy and depressed, but I also bet he was tougher and edgier than this portrait suggests – nastier, too, maybe, with that narcissistic core of steel common to so many artists. This seems more like a study of a Morrissey fan than one of the singer.

It’s slow, undramatic and played mostly as a gentle comedy, with a few funny moments. The soundtrack is good and accurate, with bands from the Shangri-Las to Mott the Hoople, though it’s puzzling that the music scene of contemporary Manchester is not much featured – no Buzzcocks, no Joy Division, no Factory Records – when all of these must have acted as both a spur and an irritant to the young not-yet-artist.

But, oh, the anachronisms. In just the opening ten minutes, set in 1976, a girl describes a boy as “fit”, someone is told to “grow a pair” and someone else to “get your shit together”. Whatever you think about Morrissey, he always cared about words. I can feel him wincing from here.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article appears in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon