Pop nostalgia can be a troublesome thing. I’m not saying music shouldn’t be enjoyed by all ages but there’s something suspect when bands are revived in order for their middle-aged fans to relive the glory days of their teenage years. It’s a bit sad, especially when the band in question is a byword for youthful non-conformity.
England Is Mine is Mark Gill’s biopic of Steven Patrick Morrissey in the years before he found fame with The Smiths, and I rather feared exactly this kind of fogey-ish wallowing. A litany of encounters freighted with expectation – oh, look, a young Johnny Marr! – and all coated in a sticky sheen of sentimentality, create a Werther’s Original idea of the formative years of one of Britain’s most indelible singers.
Well, the lovely thing about England Is Mine is that it mostly eschews these cliches. Instead, this is a delicate, light-footed, surprisingly moving portrait of growing up in the England of the late 1970s and early 1980s: it’s a hymn, melancholic and joyous, to adolescence in all its wild ambition and agonised introspection, much more than it is the creation-myth of Morrissey, the icon.
Morrissey, or Steven as he is referred to more often here, is played by Jack Lowden (an intelligent, sensitive performance that channels some of the singer’s attitude but is never mannered). When we first meet Steven he’s a shy, inward, mostly unhappy kid from Manchester who retreats into his bedroom whenever his parents are arguing.
Steven’s bedroom is the film’s most evocative location. What the vast stretches of desert were to Lawrence of Arabia, so this cramped upstairs bedroom in a modest house in Manchester is to England Is Mine. Filled with books, its ugly wallpaper covered in notes and posters, and at its centre a typewriter on which he composes his lyrics in the quiet of night. It’s Steven’s haven and his imaginative furnace.
What the vast stretches of desert were to Lawrence of Arabia, so Morrissey’s cramped upstairs bedroom in a modest house in Manchester is to England Is Mine.
In an episodic plot – that sees Steven unhappily employed at the local tax office, then in the city hospital – the film’s central concern is how its hero overcomes his shyness and acerbic detachment to express himself to the world: how he’s coaxed out from the safety of his bedroom to the uncertainties of the stage. In this, he’s helped almost exclusively by women: by his mouthy and caustic friend Anji (who urges him, through salty sarcasm alone, to start a band); by the prodding and encouragement of art-school student Linder; and – in a scene of affecting tenderness – a gorgeous heart-to-heart from his mum. Morrissey’s sexuality is a subject largely unaddressed but the one romantic encounter that Steven has in this film – with his comically awful colleague in the tax office – is depicted as an ordeal no less painful than root canal work.
Along the way are some splendidly left-field music choices – George Formby’s I’m Shy scores that much-mythologised Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall – and plenty of sharp, typically northern humour (Linder’s view of London: “I live in shoe box and all everyone knows about is hummus.”).
Morrissey’s not been having good press lately and a period of social media restraint might be called for. However, this sweetly sad, funny and honest evocation of youth, in its dreamy excess and vulnerable depths, reminds us that Morrissey, for his pomp and self-regard today, was once a kid, just like any other.
England Is Mine is in cinemas from August 4.