If you don’t care about Morrissey, former lead vocalist and lyricist of legendary U.K. band The Smiths, then it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing “England is Mine,” the reverent biopic about the young artist’s despair-filled, pre-Smiths existence.
But if you do care, if you care as deeply as most Smiths/Morrissey fans care, which is to say with your entire being, then you will have already filled in the rest of the title (“England is mine … it owes me a living,” from the song “Still Ill”). And you’ll feel that little thrill of recognition when an abusive employer tells young Steven Patrick Morrissey (“Dunkirk” star Jack Lowden) that the future pop god is, in fact, owed nothing of the sort. He may have been looking for a job, may have found one, and may have remained — heaven knows — miserable, but you’ve found the fan service you’ve always wanted.
“England is Mine,” from director Mark Gill (who co-wrote with William Thacker), traces Morrissey’s late-’70s late adolescence in Manchester, England, until the moment guitarist Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) shows up at his doorstep to float the idea of a band. And because the filmmakers understand that the Morrissey aesthetic is a deep and broad collection of cultural influences — glam rock, the Shangri-La’s, Oscar Wilde, serial killers, rough trade, Rita Tushingham, the cliché of British sexlessness — incidents and references fly freely.
Morrissey meets his lifelong friend, the artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay, not given nearly enough to do), and the pair develop a devoted and platonic shorthand language of literary quotes and superior glances.
He falls in with Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence, “Peaky Blinders”) and nearly as quickly falls out when Duffy leaves for London, and eventual stardom in the band The Cult, but not before Duffy introduces him to teenage Marr.
He suffers at various part time employment scenarios, consents to go on a date with a young woman he can barely stand, and treats everyday, wage-earning, middle-aged people like heavy obstacles around which he must navigate on the way to anywhere but Manchester.
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He attends legendary gigs by The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith, while the film cleverly layers vintage ’60s girl group songs over woozy, soft-focus visuals, a collision of disparate, Smiths-defining information.
But before breakthroughs, there is boredom, and this film’s young Morrissey endures quite a bit of that. He sits and thinks and writes and reads and mocks and mopes and plans, while Gill makes sure that his protagonist, a man who wrote knowingly about “spending warm summer days indoors,” stays put, nearly to the point of viewer frustration.
Cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland (“The Duke of Burgundy”) intensifies the interiority, making pointed use of static shots of drab, yellowed, 1970s domestic space — Morrissey’s adolescent cloister — and especially of fateful moments like a hallway phone left off the hook, an unseen Marr waiting patiently on the other end.
Lowden has the basics of Morrissey’s look and voice down cold but holds back when it comes to displaying what would become the man’s trademark self possession. And due to the nature of the time frame covered, that’s by design. The fully formed, acid-tongued, media manipulator that a generation of depressed teenagers fell in love with is presented here as a worried young man whose potential and talent are stymied by anxiety and confusion about which next steps to take: the boy with the thorn in his side, and all its attendant self-pity. He’s more than a little adept at skulking.
Non-fans won’t bother, and they shouldn’t. “England is Mine” is full of serious-minded confidence in its subject, but not engaging enough a first date with Morrissey to convince anyone that musical genius was his story’s inevitable outcome. It won’t make its real life subject happy either, because it’s necessarily the story of a person who had not quite yet become exciting.
For the millions of true believers out there, however — the ones who loved him in 1985 and who would prefer to live in the past rather than listen to the 2017 version of their former hero speak approvingly of Brexit or disparagingly about immigrants — the film provides a blissfully melancholy roll call of pleasures.
To listen to Morrissey refer to The Clash as “schematic” and “self-flagellating” with a dismissive sniff, to watch him obsessively thumb through a copy of “The Monsters of the Moors,” and to witness him sitting for hours at the cemetery gates on a dreaded sunny day, is comfort cinema of an oddly abject sort, but it will feel just right all the same.