With England is Mine, director Mark Gill explores the emergence of the creative mindset of an icon of alternative rock music: Morrissey.
Named after the Smiths’ lyrics, “England is mine and it owes me a living,” the biopic focuses on the former Smiths frontman’s adolescence, from his boredom while working menial jobs at the Inland Revenue and at a local hospital, to his creative spurts of inspiration mixed with his private torments. Depression and ambition go hand in hand to provide the fuel that will either sink him or propel him to greatness, and his career finally jumps into gear when he meets Johnny Marr and steps into the threshold of his destiny.
I asked Gill why he chose this particular story: “His music had an enormous influence on me,” Gill said. “I grew up half a mile away from where he lived, in the same part of Manchester, same part of the world. Knowing the landscape, the area, the people, helped me understand his life and relate to the person”
BIRET: Did you read his biography or try to connect with him?
GILL: You can’t engage with Morrissey, he is an outsider. I did not read his autobiography before writing the script. I wanted to be detached from it and went for his emotions instead. It’s only after the first draft that I took a look at his book, just to see if I was in the right place, and how close I got to the truth.
Granted it is not easy to depict such a powerful presence on screen, and Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) skillfully trades in the awkwardness of the character. And yes, you do get a taste of his intense persona with his fervent critics of the local music scene, his bouts of disdain towards his collaborators, and his admiration for Oscar Wilde and James Dean.
Gill makes ample references to both paragons, for instance positioning Dean’s portrait smack center in the frame when he is facing the “other side”, people who might not sense the intricacy of his ego. The complexity of the character is further exposed when he is propelled into depression after his friend Linder Sterling gets his break before him and his supportive mother (Simone Kirby) attempts to reassure him that there is “only one of him” in this world.
But don’t expect a fanfarous rise to fame, the writer-director steers away from the traditional rags to riches plot, which is refreshing but also a gamble for a public accustomed to a grand finale tailored to the comfort of their expectations.
GILL: The audience is taken out of a bigger story of an icon to the smaller story of a young man. He was essentially a blank canvas. Even before Johnny Marr invites him in, he does not exist for another seven or eight months. So I ignored Morrissey as much as possible and instead grew into the idea of Morrissey.
This idea of man measuring himself against the wits of his own destiny is not unfamiliar to Gill. His previous film, The Voorman Problem, which earned him an Oscar and a Bafta nomination, delved into the psyche of a prisoner who saw himself as God, and his relationship with the psychiatrist who examined him. The correlation between genius and madness becomes a mythological pun, and I could not help but wonder if Gill forged the same chisel to scrape away at the myth of the megastar.
GILL: All art is in response to death. I’ve always had a big interest in religion and its role in history and the development of humanity. I read The Denial Of Death, by Ernest Becker. The heart of the book explains how everything we do is in response to our own death and mortality. We have to try to anesthetize ourselves. We do it with the internet and with celebrities and pop stars, to help us feel less alone. We wear different masks depending on how we are trying to live. Steven created Morrissey so he could survive in the world. His mask maybe allowed him to survive.
Choosing to work with veteran cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland was a no brainer for Gill. Knowland lived and breathed the era of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and The Stones. While capturing the subtle undertones of the times, he delicately crafts a scene where Morrissey turns down the advances of his female co-worker against the backdrop of preconceived notions of romance gone wrong. I asked Gill about the reason for carefully treading on Morrissey’s sexual preferences. “I originally wrote a different version of this scene, but after consulting with my attorney, I was advised to keep it simple and suggestive, due to problems with privacy laws. I wanted to give a sense of the inner struggles of the character, specially since everyone knows how it’s going to end.”
Without a doubt the originality of the film lies in Gill’s decision to withhold any cinematic reference to Morrissey’s meteoric rise to fame, unveiling the icon as a mere mortal who could have simmered in obscurity, but for the courage to finally believe in himself.
BIRET: You seem to favor protagonists whose demise is tested by something larger than their own selves. What are you currently working on?
GILL: Now that you mention it, I just finished the first draft of “The Broadcast,” which is a book adaption. It’s a speculative fiction, a pre-apocalypse film, and everything that leads to it. Let’s say that there is a very big event on earth, and it’s so huge that it affects everyone on earth. People fall into different canvasses, spiritually inclined or not. They can hear the static sound and hear a voice in their head, but can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman talking to them, and it takes place in and around D.C.