If Steven Patrick Morrissey didn’t exist, someone would have had to make him up. As characters go, he’s one of the greats, a fabulous mixture of northern grit, bookish sentimentality, blind confidence, crippling self-doubt and raw talent – perfect, then, for committing to celluloid. England Is Mine takes a loving look at his pre-Smiths fame, back when he was a jobless teenager obsessed with writing scathing reviews of local bands and sending them into the NME letters page. In a bedroom plastered with pictures of his heroes, from James Dean to Oscar Wilde, we see Dunkirk actor Jack Lowden sat moodily at his typewriter, bashing out furious screeds as his sister sighs, his mother frets and his father simply ups and leaves.
Although the Scottish actor has Morrissey’s world-weary drawl down pat, the fact he isn’t an out-and-out lookalike of the young star-in-the-making stops him from falling into the trap of parody, an issue that often ruins a perfectly good rock biopic. Instead, Lowden’s sweet and tender portrayal of the notoriously mardy Mancunian casts light on the man underneath the corduroy blazer as he looks for a job – and finds a job – then develops a vital friendship with gregarious, popular art student Linder Sterling (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay).
In fact, the film seems to suggest that if it wasn’t for Sterling, Morrissey would still be stuck behind his typewriter, as it’s she who attempts to bring him out of his shell and convinces him to join local band The Nosebleeds, who NME reviews and sings the praises of the frontman’s charisma, but also gets his name wrong – sorry, Moz.
Director Mark Gill, who also hails from Morrissey’s hometown of Stretford, perfectly captures the late 1970s of the north, from the dingy canals and damp, cobbled streets to the sterile hospitals and grand old art schools, as well as Morrissey’s claustrophobic Inland Revenue office, complete with a crabby boss straight out of a vintage sitcom. Morrissey’s early years might be rendered in glum browns, greys and blues, but it’s somehow one of the most colourful, heartening films of the summer.