Thursday, August 10, 2017
England is Mine
A film that was always going to be made is finally here. England is Mine, which documents the life of Morrissey, (from 1976 to the encounter that led to the formation of The Smiths in 1982), is just out in UK cinemas. I saw it last night. Here are some general reflections.
Sadly, I found it rather disappointing, an opportunity missed. I had a palpable sense of excitement as I walked into the cinema which gradually ebbed away from me over the course of the next hour and a half. I probably won't be alone in this respect. This, of course, is a film that has a lot riding on it. So many people's youth, such a large audience with immense personal investment in the subject matter and the figure of Morrissey himself.
He after all, was the one who got out, (against all odds), from his virtual imprisonment in his box bedroom to become the pop star he'd long since been in his head and Britain had always been waiting for without even knowing it. And of course he also did it partially for the rest of us like-minded dreamers who ended up taking the rather more conventional but inevitable path to a nine to five existence. Many of us have lived a vicarious other life through him ever since he finally emerged from his chrysalis on meeting Johnny Marr. A moment the film does document very well in its final scenes.
'It's time that the tale were told...' Of course that's not strictly true. This particular tale has been told and retold since 1983. By the man himself and countless others. Everybody who is ever likely to care knows it very well already. The teenage letters to the NME, the attendance at the first Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, the formative musical influences, the friendships with Anji Hardie and Linder Sterling, the first meeting with Marr at a Patti Smith concert, Billy Duffy, the fateful knock on the door at 384 King's Road.
The fact that it's now such a public story doesn't help the makers of England is Mine particularly, as when trying to retell it they were shunned by the man himself, denied access to any Smiths music and generally end up treading a careful path that avoids explicit comment on Morrissey's sexuality, (or even vegetarianism or feminism), and doesn't properly chart the germination, growth and eventual flowering of his remarkable talent.
Instead, the main thrust of the narrative seems to be that the man was utterly temperamentally and genetically unsuited to the tedium of nine to five employment, a point which could have been made in ten minutes rather than the half hour we're asked to endure here. In addition to this, and frustratingly, the significant figures around him are also insufficiently fleshed out and substantiated. It all feels somewhat timid and remote.
For the first forty minutes of the film, Morrissey is an almost complete mute in any social situation away from the family home. He rebuffs every conversational advance of any kind and stares resolutely at the floor. Whether this actually was his life between 1976 and 1979 or not is quite beside the point. It makes for remarkably undramatic viewing, and almost impossible to empathise with the man on any level which surely is an absolute essential if what we're watching is to be worthy of its subject matter. When later, Jack Lowden as Morrissey, begins increasingly to narrate, the film belatedly realises what it was lacking up to this point. The dynamic of growth and direction. A voice. The caterpillar metaphor is an apt one. For an hour and fifteen minutes that is what he is here. He has only twenty minutes as a butterfly.
Lowden is perfectly capable as Morrissey but no-one else gets sufficient sustenance from the script to manage a fully characterised portrayal. I'd go instead for the full story to Morrissey's own autobiography, the wonderful interviews with the man in the British music press in the eighties or the two reasonable but not definitive biographies of The Smiths by Johnny Rogan and Tony Fletcher. Oh and The Smiths music of course, which still tell the story better than anything else.