Morrissey has made a career of losing friends and alienating people, and in perhaps the most cravenly glad-handing business there is – pop music. Of course, reaping adulation from rejecting your chosen craft is in rock and roll’s DNA. But for Steven Patrick Morrissey, the refusal has always been one step above mere instrument smashing and libidinal excess. In fact, it’s been the opposite: reserved, literary, and unashamedly pretentious, Morrissey is to music what Sid Vicious would have been to tax accounting.
In fact Morrissey did briefly work for the Inland Revenue, in the years before he helped form The Smiths. Whether or not England is Mine will give us glimpses of pop’s laureate of mope processing tax returns is unclear, but the film indeed sets out to document Morrissey’s pre-fame days. As such it joins other recent indie biopics Control and Nowhere Boy in excavating the formative years of serious young men (Iain Curtis and John Lennon respectively). Rebel heritage tales, though, are a genre Mozza feels particularly suited for.
This is because his output with The Smiths and as a solo artist has always been about self-memorialisation, if wrapped in irony and punctured by pathos. Morrissey is a guy who would take particular joy in writing his own obituary, and his 2013 autobiography – published with Penguins Classics, an imprint normally reserved for deceased writers – amounts to as much. An exhibitionist in hiding, he’s spent over three decades throwing morsels of himself at those who are interested, and dismissing those who aren’t.
All of which poses difficulties for a filmmaker. The necessarily revelatory purpose of a biopic runs contrary to Morrissey’s mystique-moulding – the closer England is Mine gets to the heart of the man, the more it will arguably miss the point.
That said, everybody comes from somewhere, and no one more so than this little charmer. For Morrissey’s egomania is inextricable from that Cathy Come Home milieu – cobbled streets, overcast skies, Northern grit – that he manages to both embody and appropriate.
Hence the title is more than just a snippet of one of his more compelling lyrics - director Mark Gill is out to evoke a bygone era. Given Morrissey’s history of dog-whistle racism, it’s also quietly incendiary, at least if Gill gives time to these more unpalatable aspects of his character. Jack Lowden will need to work on a canvas already stuffed with contradiction and connotation to play the singer, before his faithful meeting – and the film’s end – with Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston).
Life always overspills biography though, even if for Morrissey it’s very much by design. However accurate England is Mine may be, the pleasure and the privilege is his.