By concentrating on the formative years of Steven Patrick Morrissey, England of Mine shows the evolution of the miserablist genius – and avoids awkward licensing issues
England is Mine (15) ***
Maudie (12A) ***
Land of Mine (15) ****
Expanding what would traditionally be the first act of a biopic into an entire movie, England is Mine, Mark Gill’s unauthorised film about Morrissey’s early years, may well frustrate those looking for a fuller picture of the be-quiffed Mancunian miserabilist. Spanning the years from 1976 to the moment in 1982 when he first sat down with Johnny Marr to form The Smiths, the rest might be history, but this portion of his past is the prologue to that history, even if it largely involves him sitting around in his bedroom, contemplating his own yet-to-be recognised talent.
These years certainly couldn’t be described as the most dynamic in the life of young Steven Patrick Morrissey. Working a soul-destroying job at the Inland Revenue, Steven – who’s winningly played by Scottish actor Jack Lowden – spends most of his spare time either hanging around with his artist friend Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay), quoting William Blake at length, or scribbling in his notebook, imagining a life for himself as pop music’s answer to Oscar Wilde. Too much of a wallflower to take the plunge and form his own band, his only outlet for his various missives are the letters pages of the music press, where his elaborate syntax – something that made Morrissey’s own autobiography so unreadable – offers some clues to the pomposity for which he’ll partly become famous. When others do coerce him into tentatively collaborating, though, it’s very much a stop-start process, his penchant for over-thinking everything curdling his creativity before he can get a word out.
None of which sounds very appealing and even scenes depicting his attendance at seminal gigs by The Sex Pistols – Morrissey was one of the few attendees at their infamous show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 – seem to go out of their way to avoid suggesting it was in anyway transformative. And yet there’s something admirable about the commitment the film makes to dramatising the mental graft necessary to transform ephemeral thoughts, feelings and experiences into worthwhile art. This is not another of those bogus biopics that perpetuate the myth that talent arrives fully formed. Instead, it exploits its own low-budget status to explore how the very drabness of Steven’s existence in Manchester helps fuel the interior life of “Morrissey”, the pop music iconoclast he will soon become. Accordingly, there’s nothing sexy or glamorous about the way Gill shoots Manchester, but he does include the occasional flash of something strange and beautiful, which in turn is emblematic of the way Steven will eventually find ways to transform his own misery into something meaningful for his many devoted fans.
The film does assume a lot of prior knowledge in this respect. The lean script makes no concessions for audiences who don’t know that Sterling was a key graphic artist in the punk scene (she designed record sleeves for The Buzzcocks) or that Morrissey’s first band mate, Billy Duffy, went on to form The Cult. Playful nods about his vegetarianism and his sexuality are likely to go unnoticed too, although the latter does result in the film’s funniest moment when he promptly ends a date with a co-worker by slamming the door behind her and slinking off into the night.
Because of the timeframe of the movie, there’s obviously no music by The Smiths or Morrissey (something that conveniently gets around the licensing issues). In fact, there’s only one performance scene in the film, a solitary gig with Duffy’s band The Nosebleeds, which earns Morrissey his first positive notice, even if his name is misspelled. This scene jolts the film to life in a way that makes you wish there was more music, but it’s not a movie about the art of performance; it’s a film about how precarious talent is.
In this sense, England is Mine feels true to a certain type of self-flagellating artistic experience and Lowden is good at walking a sympathetic line between Morrissey’s passive, self-pitying narcissism and his sincere ambition to do something lasting in the world. Applying this level of introspection to this period in his life can’t help but make the film seem little indulgent at times, but it also feels appropriate: England is Mine leaves you in little doubt that this is the man who will go on to write Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.
Maudie is also a biopic of an artist, but this film about the Canadian painter Maud Lewis is a far more joyous affair, despite being about someone battling crippling ailments. Put that down to Sally Hawkins, whose unsentimental, no-nonsense performance as the arthritic folk artist manages to convey in a non-showy way both the pain and relief painting brought Lewis. Irish director Aisling Walsh smartly keeps the style as simple as Maudie’s childlike paintings, leaving Hawkins and Ethan Hawke (cast as Lewis’s taciturn, illiterate husband) room to explore the intricacies of their unlikely union.
One of this year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign language film, the Danish war thriller Land of Mine, highlights a little-known atrocity perpetrated by the Danish government in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War: namely the forcing of German PoWs as young as 13 to clear the Danish coast of landmines. As demonstrated in movies such as The Hurt Locker and Kujaki, this kind of scenario automatically makes for intense drama, but Land of Mine is bolstered by great performances too, both from the young German cast and, especially, from Roland Møller as their terrifying, but increasingly empathetic, Danish commander. ■