Review: ‘England Is Mine,’ Starring Jack Lowden And Jessica Brown Findlay

Perhaps you didn’t realize Jack Lowden was in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, since the actor’s face is covered most of the time by his pilot’s mask. The role only let Lowden come alive after his plane landed in the water and he was rescued by Mark Rylance’s character, eventually dragging other young men onboard to be saved from the Axis onslaught. But those pining for Lowden’s expressive, handsome face are in luck with England Is Mine. He’s front and center in the film as a young Morrissey, before he was the frontman of The Smiths and when he was still struggling to figure out his exact artistic aspirations. In a film that sometimes feels like it is trying to fill time, Lowden is at least magnetic.

Morrissey is like a god in some circles, and it’s for them that England Is Mine will hold the most interest. A snapshot of Morrissey’s young adulthood in Manchester, England Is Mine is marketed as being about Morrissey’s relationship with artist Linder Sterling (described in press materials as his “soul mate and muse”), but that’s somewhat misleading. The friendship between Morrissey (then going by his first name, Stephen) and Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay) is present, but her “muse” status seems like a stretch. She’s more of an agitator, calling Stephen on his crap and encouraging him to finally make a move toward his dreams. But there isn’t nearly enough of her, and Findlay feels underserved.

In working-class Manchester, Stephen sticks out unbelievably, with his floppy haircut, his oversized glasses, and his nubby sweaters. Like a ghost, he silently haunts the local record store, tries to walk down streets unnoticed by local bullies, and only seems to have one friend in fellow rock fan Anji Hardie (Katherine Pearce). He spends his nights at clubs or bars, listening to bands and groups and then critiquing them in letters he writes to papers and magazines. He’s desperate to get noticed for his writing, but he’s also bitterly unhappy—everything he writes is cutting.

He compares listening to one group with taking a terrible shit and then realizing there’s no toilet paper; when the Sex Pistols come to town he watches with a thoroughly nonplussed look on his face. “Manchester is a lovely place, if you happen to be a bed-ridden deaf mute,” he says, and you can see that trademark Morrissey disaffected sneer taking form.

But what else is Stephen really doing? For money, he takes a job in a local office, disappearing for hours and sometimes days to complain in his journal about the very people he works with. He often fights with his sister, who resents the generosity and patience his mother keeps offering him (despite their money problems, she’ll buy every book on a list he gives her). And when Anji sets up a meeting with a local guitarist, he’s too cowardly to meet with him about the possibility of making music together, fracturing their friendship.

Things only start to change when Linder enters his orbit. She doesn’t suffer any of his foolishness: In response to his music criticism, she writes her own letter to the editor offering constructive advice for his writing style (“Relax the diction, you’re not Jane Austen,” she says). After a show, she approaches him and drags him to a party with some friends. And when he sees her pursuing her artwork—and eventually succeeding so much that an offer arrives for an exhibit in London—he realizes he can’t mope around forever. No one will make the music inside his mind except for him.

Put bluntly, England Is Mine is not for anyone who isn’t already a Morrissey fan who considers his detached churlishness and his polite discourtesy endearing—because often, he really just seems like a self-involved asshole. We are meant to sympathize entirely with his otherness, and so his escapades—like bailing on work for days on end, or insulting his coworkers to their faces—are meant to be relatable bristles from a suffering artist. (That doesn’t get more clear than when Stephen’s very average boss complains of him, “Why can’t you be more like everyone else?”) Fans may be sympathetic, but casual viewers probably won’t be, nor will they necessarily pick up on the allusions to Morrissey’s sexual identity (his affection for Oscar Wilde, how his eyes assess guitarist Johnny Marr) or his vegetarianism (his mother once presents a dinner plate loaded with sad-looking wet vegetables). Those are subtle nods to Morrissey’s personality for people who already know how formative those elements are, but the movie doesn’t contextualize them enough to be enlightening for a non-Smiths-fan viewer.

It’s unfortunate that the film can’t quite expand its audience because Lowden is quietly effective at being profoundly malcontent (even when forced to do movie-cliché things like smash his typewriter), and Brown applies a nice energy to her character (even if she is flattened to a simple Morrissey cheerleader). They have a good push-pull chemistry, but it is unfair to Linder to say this is a movie about her being Morrissey’s “muse.” She needed to be in more of the movie for that to be accurate. England Is Mine has a ready-made audience in fans of The Smiths, but too much of the movie follows Morrissey filling time instead of making moves.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Guttenbergs