Despite the ravages of age, logic, and his own best efforts, some of us still carry a torch for Morrissey and the Smiths that—not unlike myself these days—never goes out. Because this fandom runs so deep, I can imagine a time when the news of a British film about Morrissey's squalid pre-fame youth in Manchester would have seemed like a thrilling prospect. But now that England Is Mine is a concrete reality, with a trailer and reviews trickling in from across the Atlantic, it seems clear that the question is less "Will they get it right?" than "How wrong will they get it?"
Pretty wrong, I'm sorry to say:
Jack Lowden seems like fine actor, but based on appearances alone, he is disastrously miscast in what is, to be fair, an impossible role. I've never understood how filmmakers tackling the stories of people who are both massively famous and unmistakably alive are so frequently willing to settle for actors who simply don't look anything like the subject. It's no one's fault, but since the only people who are likely to see this film are also likely to have spent every day of the past 30 years gazing at enormous posters of actual Morrissey's actual face, you'd think someone might have taken a moment to compare the basic facial bone structure.
And no, not just for the sake of literalism, but because the way he looked had as much to do with the generation of his persona as did his working class roots, his Catholicism, his sexuality, or his love of Oscar Wilde and the New York Dolls. Though Morrissey became blindingly beautiful, he wasn't born that way (as any cursory look through photos of his long-haired, letters-to-NME period reveals). It's hard to imagine any born-beautiful human, actor or not, ever coming close to understanding what it's like to need to become in that particular way. But even if he can, he's still going to be like an actress forced to wear glasses so everyone can pretend her character isn't a total fox until she takes them off.
(Say what you will about Oliver Stone's The Doors, but there's no denying that Val Kilmer—who really didn't look much like Jim Morrison before he got the role—utterly transformed his body in order to be credible playing one of the most photographed people of the late 20th century.)
The trailer's tone is uncomfortably close to the uplifting-scrappy-British/Irish-working-class-underdog-finds-his/her/their-voice school of cinema (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Pride, On a Clear Day, Made in Dagenham, The Commitments, etc.). There's a little too much of Linder (Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey, looking basically credible if not strictly accurate) giving young Steven (did you ever picture her calling him "Steven"?) life-coachy encouragement, and a little too little sense of the actual hopelessness that formed the backdrop to Morrissey's self-invention, even prior to his hooking up with Johnny Marr.
That famous, fateful meeting, when Marr knocked on Morrissey's door out of nowhere and asked him if he'd care to start a band is, every bit as rock n' roll canonical as Paul McCartney showing up to the Woolton Church fete to ask John Lennon if he could join the Quarrymen, or Michael Stipe and Peter Buck meeting over the counter at Wuxtry Records. According to the Hollywood Reporter review, England Is Mine—which uses no Smiths or Morrissey music or any of Morrissey's written words—builds up to that moment, which puts it in the class of Sam Taylor-Wood's Beatles-before-they-were-really-the-Beatles gem Nowhere Boy (if it's lucky), or Randall Miller's CBGB (if it isn't).
It's unfair to judge a film by its trailer. The director, Mark Gill, made an interesting Oscar-and-BAFTA-nominated short called The Voorman Problem, and you certainly couldn't accuse his feature debut of lacking ambition. Still. This is Morrissey. This is the Smiths. There's no grading on a curve, and no quarter granted for fucking it up.
As a small side note, it should go without saying that I would see England is Mine even if I knew it were guaranteed to induce ocular bleeding in everyone who laid eyes on it. I'm just a little antsy, because I have no desire to witness the cinematic desecration of the artist/performer who meant the most to me at the time in my life when I was most available to that kind of meaning—even though and especially because he seems committed to making himself impossible to defend in the present tense.
But we'll always have Paris...