England Is Mine ends the instant before Morrissey and Johnny Marr sit down to create their first song together. That monumental, historic moment in pop music is here presented as a finish line, a milestone the film’s protagonist has spent the entire film dreaming of, aching for, and preemptively mourning. Before he gets there, he must endure the drudgery of a day job, a community that actively wishes him harm when it’s not boring him to death, and the very real threat of clinical depression that threatens to consume him. His despair is so absolute that he can only see the open door that will eventually lead to his success as cause for total, crippling grief. Success is waiting for Morrissey, but in England Is Mine misery is the journey, not the destination.
Director Mark Gill presents a sepia-steeped portrait of 1970s Manchester, against which Young Steven Patrick Morrissey (Jack Lowden) rails like a pretty, Byronic Holden Caulfield (or maybe Ignatius J. Reilly.) When we find him, Steven is firing off angry missives about the local music scene to the NME and pasting the published versions to a cork board in his bedroom. In another column, a reader accuses him of loving the sound of his own voice, and Morrissey fans don't need the ensuing scene of Steven staring at his own press clippings to know it's true. But that self-absorption would never keep any Morrissey fan from feeling an affection for him, and so too does the writer of that insult: a pretty, assured artist named Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay), who elbows her way past his antisocial defenses, befriending the would-be singer and trying to nudge him out from behind his typewriter and onto a stage.
There are no Smiths songs in England Is Mine, which works because it occupies a world that predates Smiths songs. Instead the soundtrack is layered with Morrissey’s influences - everything from Roxy Music to the New York Dolls to the Shangri-Las. And the film is layered with scene after scene that will come to inform Morrissey’s eventual lyrics. Steven looks for a job and then he finds a job, etc. He endures an office full of dullards and streets full of bullies, all of whom will turn up in Smiths songs one way or another.
Viewers wait an eternity (okay, an hour, but Moz brings out the dramatic) for Steven to start singing, for Steven to become Morrissey. But the waiting is sort of the point. Steven is waiting too. His hesitancy is something to which anyone in a creative endeavor can relate- the fear of putting yourself out there, that special personality cocktail of massive self-doubt and equally massive self-worth. Steven is also dealing with depression, which renders every setback a crushing blow, every misstep a fatal misfire. When he finally sings, it's a triumphant moment, but his depression means the next catastrophe is just around the corner.
Where the movie stumbles is in its attempts to dig beneath the surface; too often scenes and details seem to serve historical accuracy more than any dramatic arc. Lowden is fine as the young Morrissey, but aside from one tender moment with his mom (Simone Kirby), Steven’s struggle with depression often feels like garden variety emo baggage. His illness is in no way exploited, but nor is it really addressed in a way that feels narratively satisfying.
Ending when it does, England Is Mine becomes a rather tiny story, hoping you’ll show up with enough of its mythology to lend the proceedings proper import. But one considers the current, disposable attitude toward music and music history, and one wonders what portion of the audience knows a sufficient enough amount of backstory to do what the filmmakers are asking. Without already knowing what happens after that last scene, you’re left with a lovingly rendered portrait of a bit of a cipher, a protagonist who never lets you in and therefore one in whom you can’t invest too much emotion. One suspects Morrissey is probably fine with that.