After opening last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival with golf biopic Tommy’s Honour, rising Scottish star Jack Lowden returns to close the festival with a very different kind of biopic. Mark Gill’s feature debut England is Mine explores the formative years of indie icon Morrissey, charting his time as a frustrated teen struggling to find a creative outlet for his voice.
The film follows Steven Patrick Morrissey (Lowden) as he tries to find his way after high school, locking himself away in his room in his mother (Simone Kirby)’s house, listening to old records and reading classic literature. Though he’s certain he’s a genius writer, he lacks the confidence to actually perform any of his material and initially shuns the advances of a couple of local bands. The only people he can really talk to are his mother and Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay), a young goth girl who can match his knowledge of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.
While this period might not be the most obvious part of Morrissey’s life to cover, Gill and co-writer William Thacker do an effective job of charting a course for the character. We see from these humble beginnings – a drab Manchester council house and a soul-sucking office job at the IRS – how this sullen, sensitive teen could go on to be the artist we’re all so familiar with. The dearth of any official material – from either The Smiths or Morrissey’s solo career – does mean the film is lacking in the kind of live performances that might help illustrate his growth as a musician, with only one live performance of a New York Dolls song to go by.
It’s a pity as Lowden’s performance captures the distinctive voice and mannerisms well and limiting his chance to actually perform feels like a missed opportunity. Similarly, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston) – a crucial figure in Morrissey’s life – is only on the periphery here, with their relationship remaining largely unexplored. However, without having the official material to work with, Gill isn’t able to lean on the foreshadowing of iconic tracks and easy crowd-pleasing moments. It allows the film to follow a different path and dig more into the man himself than the career he went onto forge, and it works best as the story of an angsty young man with lofty dreams trying to make his way out of an environment that wants him to be just like everyone else.
England is Mine ultimately has an uphill struggle in trying to tell the story of a musician without being able to use any of his music, but Gill rises to the task by creating an engaging and spirited teen movie. Lowden continues to impress by incorporating the voice and mannerisms of his subject into a nuanced and well-observed portrayal of an awkward and frustrated teen. While there’s definitely enough here to appeal to anyone who’s sceptical about Morrissey and even those who are unfamiliar with him, but genuine fans will lap up this early look at his life, even if the abrupt ending will leave them wanting to see more.