Mark Gill’s feature début is a biopic-of-sorts depicting the early life of Steven Patrick Morrissey (a.k.a. just plain Morrissey) before he helped create Manchester’s hugely influential indie outfit The Smiths in 1982.
Featuring considerable authenticity (many filming spots were surviving locations where Morrissey genuinely plodded) and a pretty good performance by Jack Lowden (just before Dunkirk) as our impossible protagonist, this is still somewhat hamstrung by the lack of Smiths’ tunes. Fans won’t hear Panic, This Charming Man, Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now or How Soon is Now? because surely the rights to use them were too expensive – and, chances are, the oh-so-contrarian Morrissey would never have allowed it.
In 1976, Lowden’s Steven is seen living with his family in glumly urban Manchester, making their lives difficult and scrawling in notebooks beneath portraits of Oscar Wilde as old girl-group hits blast out of his ratty old record player. His mum (Simone Kirby) wants him to pursue his passion for writing but his dad (Peter McDonald) says he should get a real job, and he resentfully passes many days away at a ghastly desk gig, with occasional retreats to the roof to pen pretentious sentiments about how everyone around him is an imbecile.
After he’s finally pushed into talking to some musos at a local club, he meets Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay, really good), who becomes an unlikely friend, despite obviously thinking him a bit of a prat. There are some sharply amusing scenes as she half-fights with poor Christine (Jodie Comer), a “bovine” girl from work who won’t leave him alone. Steven is forced into making contact with two local lads looking to start bands: Billy Duffy (Adam Lawrence), later part of The Cult, and Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston), the other major creative force in The Smiths.
However, we’re denied an awful lot here, as we see Morrissey sing one song in the non-Smiths first group he joins (and, bizarrely, it’s the Shangri-Las’ classic Give Him a Great Big Kiss), and then, instead of this leading to great things, winding up in a weeks-long depression. The sight of him downing Diazepam to the tune of Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop is uncomfortably funny, decidedly strange and creepily un-PC, all at once.
A passion project about a guy who could be a right pain as a young man (and revelled in being a right pain as he got older), this is nevertheless a must-see for Smiths’ devotees willing to be deprived of just about everything Smiths. We’re even robbed of a final explanatory subtitle that describes what happened post-1982 – which means that the film just sort of stops.
England Is Mine screens at the Mercury Cinema until Monday, April 9. All details are at mercurycinema.org.au