“Romantic England’s dead and gone,” says Steven Patrick Morrissey, deliberately misquoting Yeats in this engrossing biopic, “it’s with Jane Austen in the grave”. Elsewhere his mother makes a wallpaper joke about his hero Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s reputed last words, remember, were: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.”
These are just two of the (unexplained) echoes in a film which is steeped in musical and literary lore, the two seminal influences on Morrissey’s life as he trod his weary path from oblivion to musical success.
Mark Gill’s film, concentrating on his early life, is enthralling. Visually it’s as good as anything by Terence Davies in its smoky richness. Aurally it boasts a screenplay that delights with its eccentricity. (“What would you like to eat?” “Anything as long as it’s poisonous.”)
We’re in Manchester, 1976. Morrissey is bored to tears with his job in a tax office. Basically he sees himself as an undiscovered genius surrounded by mental defectives. His (Irish) mother proves to be a rock of strength as all occasions conspire against him. His sister is somewhat less supportive. Dad has gone AWOL.
Scribbling down epigrams of distaste on the roof of the building where he communes with his muse during unscheduled ‘breaks,’ Morrissey (he would soon drop his Christian name) waits for the day when, as Lord Byron might put it, he can wake up to find himself famous.
A Byronic air surrounds him too. There is deep gloom. He contemplates the misery of life from above a river. He stares into the eddying waters, making us fear he’ll jump in at any moment.
Morrissey has spoken often about his depression. For some people it seems almost like a pose with him. They listen to his Malthusian ramblings and wonder if he’s unleashing them to gain notoriety. But anyone who’s investigated his life in any detail knows it’s much more than a pose, even if it has its (blackly) comic side. What he’s doing is expelling the beast within himself.
England is Mine ends as abruptly as it began but Gill (doing both writing and directing duties) still has enough time to alert us to his sociopathy, his penchant for dramatising himself, his tendency to speak in italics. It ends with his epitomic meeting with Johnny Marr, the man who became his ally in The Smiths during the career-changing 1980s.
Ironically, the film made me buy a CD of music from the 1950s rather than anything by Morrissey himself. It’s prolifically garlanded with fifties tracks because Morrissey loved these growing up.
See it at all costs. Every frame is a gem. So is its staccato pace, built up by a mosaic of moody vignettes and still lifes. Jack Lowden is a grand choice for the central role, even if he only starts to look like his character (woolly jumper, woolly coat, puffed-up hair) in the last quarter.