Hardcore fans might glean insights into the psyche of England’s iconic-ironic post-punk poet-singer fashion-political statement Morrissey from “England is Mine,” Mark Gill’s unauthorized bio-pic about Steven Patrick Morrissey’s formative years.
The film has the glum, mopey vibe of depression about it and depicts its hero tap-tap-tapping at the typewriter, venturing into music journalism and cultural criticism, scribbling snippets of inspiration into poetry notebooks.
We don’t hear much of what he’s listening to or get a sense at what he wants out of life, “Jane Austen” put-downs aside.
But it has Morrissey — blandly-played by Jack Lowden of “Tommy’s Honour” — falling under the beguiling influence of ahead-of-the-curve Goth artist/punk performer Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay of “Downton Abbey”). They sit and swap Oscar Wilde bon mots on a bench in a cemetery, inspiring a Morrissey song. Which we don’t hear. But Oscar Wilde isn’t protected by copyright.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
That “unauthorized” cross is an impossible one for this atmospheric period piece to carry. Young Steven posts “band wanted” ads for his singing aspiration. Influences? “New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Patti Smith” and forms The Nosebleeds.
The Smiths are in the distant future, all but off-camera as the picture ends just as meets Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston).
But this cannot be about music if you don’t have the rights. So there’s virtually no on-stage performance content. That means you have to downplay the significance of meeting the big musical collaborators of his life, too.
At least the piled-up pompadour his hair became isn’t protected by copyright. In this coming-of-age tale, the only thing that comes of age is his fashion sense, and that hair.
And as Morrissey has made hay out of being gay and advocating celibacy, there’s nothing racy in his allure to assorted young women (Katherine Pearce, Jodie Comer) — just a comical stand-offishness.
Musical biographies of this sort are well-served when they can take you into the music scene — the milieu — of their subject, show the ferment that created their art. “24 Hour Party People” painted a vivid portrait of the Manchester where Morrissey grew up. Some overlap with that film’s personas seems inevitable, but it isn’t. More rights issues?
In dramatic terms, Morrissey’s self-absorbed ennui doesn’t reach the level of Ian Curtis, recreated for “Control.”
Lowden, a supporting player in many a film (including “Dunkirk”) can’t make his version of brooding and bookish charismatic. Which lets the vivacious Findlay walk off with the picture. She makes the case for his commitment to celibacy in a heartbeat. She’s utterly irresistible here.
What Gill is confined to is a sort of impressionist sketch of Morrissey’s world — “Coronation Street” era Manchester, rusting and depressed, a social welfare state where young Steven squanders a civil service job-for-life by not showing up, and not fitting in when he does.
“Why can’t you be more like everyone else?” his boss barks at him.
The big problem with “England is Mine” is that that’s exactly who this Morrissey is. When your film biography is this circumscribed and unlike Jimi Hendrix (“Jimi: All is By My Side”), is still living with access to lawyers, the smart play is to pick somebody else’s story to tell.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay
Running time: 1:34