Thursday 19 October 2017

An intriguing portrait of the artist as a young moan

An unauthorised new biopic explores the formative years of The Smiths' legendary frontman Morrissey, but will anyone care, wonders our film critic

A fear of fitting in: Jack Lowden as Morrissey and Laurie Kynaston as Johnny Marr in the film England is Mine
A fear of fitting in: Jack Lowden as Morrissey and Laurie Kynaston as Johnny Marr in the film England is Mine

Paul Whitington

Pop stars are usually dead before people start making biopics about them, but as England is Mine hits the cinemas this week, Steven Patrick Morrissey is very much present and correct. What he thinks about it is anyone's guess, but he's unlikely to be amused by an unauthorised and sometimes fanciful foray into his early life.

Mark Gill's film opens in 1976 as the 17-year-old Morrissey (Jack Lowden) fulminates on the fringes of Manchester's punk scene, and struggles to make a name for himself by reviewing concerts for the London music papers.

Eventually, he drifts towards performing, becoming the lanky frontman of a punk band called The Nosebleeds. He gets his hopes up, and quits his mind-numbing job at the Inland Revenue, assuming pop stardom is imminent. But rumours of a record deal prove false, the bands split up and Morrissey enters a depressive trough from which he'll eventually emerge stronger, wiser and ready for success.

England is Mine ends in 1982, as one Johnny Marr rings the bell of Morrissey's parents' house with an idea for a new band. As the film is unauthorised, we never get to hear a single note of a Smiths song, which seems appropriate enough as the young Morrissey struggles to find his feet, but eerily anti-climactic at the end. I'm sure Gill would have dearly loved to blast the opening bars of 'What Difference Does it Make?' over his closing credits, but they handle this musical shortfall cleverly.

The only song we get to see Jack Lowden's Morrissey perform is a New York Dolls cover, and it's apt, as he's often cited them as an influence. We also hear snatches of Bowie and Roxy Music, and in one scene set in a heaving nightclub, Morrissey ignores the blaring live rock act by listening to George Formby on his Walkman.

That sounds like quintessential Morrissey, but as I watched England is Mine, I kept wondering how much sense it would make to younger viewers. And does anyone really care about him or The Smiths any more? It is difficult at this remove to convey the quasi-religious fervour of The Smiths' fan base in the 1980s. They were only together for five years, released just four studio albums and never had a number-one single in the UK or the US. But their music was praised to the skies by critics, and connected with gloomy students and disaffected bedsit-dwellers everywhere.

To them, Morrissey was the messiah, a soft-spoken shaman whose wistfully ironic lyrics perfectly described their mildewed world. I wonder how many thousands of 1980s youngsters became vegetarians after The Smiths released Meat is Murder, and Morrissey's polite rebellion and flirtations with gay culture offered a seductive antidote to the vulgar excesses of Thatcherism. He would remain her implacable enemy, describing her as "a terror without an atom of humanity" after her death in 2013.

But his tendency to make such fearless and controversial public pronouncements has landed him in hot water of late. He's described the Chinese as "a subspecies" because of their mistreatment of animals, admitted that he'd "nearly voted" for the Eurosceptic party UKIP, liked its former leader "Nigel Farage a great deal", and described the outcome of the Brexit vote as "magnificent". Surely he was joking, or being ironic, die-hard fans insisted - but he probably wasn't. Why is the middle-aged Morrissey so hard to love, asked The Guardian, but I wonder if he's the one who's changed, or everything else.

Because although Morrissey's provocative declarations might sit uneasily in these days of political correctness and social media-enforced group think, he's always insisted on seeing himself as an outsider and behaving accordingly. In England is Mine, his infuriated Inland Revenue boss asks him "why can't you be more like everybody else?". But Morrissey's worst fear was fitting in, and in any case, he was never very good at it.

Though he was born in Davyhulme, on the outskirts of Manchester, in the spring of 1959, his parents had migrated to Lancashire from their native Dublin just a year earlier. Growing up, Stephen was keenly aware of a growing anti-Irish sentiment; his family's Catholicism would have added to his sense of otherness.

His mother, Elizabeth, who's very well portrayed in the film by Simone Kirby, was his fiercest ally, and passed on to him her love of Oscar Wilde. As he grew up, Stephen became bookish, but was nothing if not eclectic: he also had a passion for Coronation Street, and the kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s and early 60s which celebrated the earthy resilience of the northern English working-class.

Films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, Billy Liar and the 1961 adaptation of Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey would have a huge impact on his writing, and world view. They followed the hard lives of working men and women who laughed to survive and drank to forget, and depicted a racially homogeneous postwar England that was changing fast, and not always for the better.

It was a time Morrissey would imagine rather than actually remember, but constantly hark back to. After The Smiths hit the big time, he had a large hand in designing album and single covers, and often chose iconic black-and-white stills of 1960s film actors like Terence Stamp and Sean Barrett, and soap actors Viv Nicholson, Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce and Avril Angers.

These images formed part of an expression of working-class Britishness that was proud though not overtly nationalistic, and never compliant. People shocked by his subsequent flirtation with the iconography of right-wing little Englanders really ought not to be.

Do potential viewers of England is Mine have to know all that? Not really: the film works as a standalone drama, and the reason it does is because Morrissey is such a fascinating subject, a one-off and a true original. Hard to pigeon-hole, sometimes infuriating to be around, he made himself up, combining high and low culture, poetry and wit, in a way that hadn't been done before.

Jack Lowden's nuanced performance explores his many contradictions: he's painfully shy but also an exhibitionist, keen to be noticed and obsessed with becoming a pop star. He's a lover of poetry and art, but ghoulishly obsessed with the Moors murders. He's a provocative stage performer who's opaque and ambivalent on all matters pertaining to sex. He's proud of his working-class identity, but sounds different than his neighbours. "You talk funny," a female co-worker says at one point, "posh, like. Are you from Bolton?"

Refreshingly for a pop star, Morrissey has never been tempted into acting, and The Smiths were controversially expunged from 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's sprawling account of the 1980s Manchester music scene. So this is the first time anyone has seriously attempted to depict on-screen a man who still casts a long shadow over British popular culture.

The good news is that England is Mine is a worthy effort, and its intriguing portrayal of its awkward, spiky and brilliant subject may even persuade people to investigate Morrissey's music, much of which stands the test of time remarkably well. But I for one would love to see a sequel exploring The Smiths' rapid rise and acrimonious fall.

England is Mine is in cinemas now

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