CLOSING the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year was this fittingly angsty but enjoyably self-aware early years biopic of one Steven Patrick Morrissey. But those looking for a traditional music biopic need look elsewhere as director Mark Gill’s film focuses exclusively on the genesis of what would become.

It follows the future leading man of The Smiths in his late teens and early 20s, living what he feels is an utterly humdrum existence in late 1970s and early 1980s Manchester, skiving and coasting through his job at the Internal Revenue Service, his head in the clouds of his poetic lyrics, writing sarcastic letters to the New Musical Express and dreaming of what could be.

Rising star Jack Lowden (Tommy’s Honour) plays that most distinctive of British singer-songwriters with beautiful subtlety, depth and knowing humour. He inhabits the persona perfectly, avoiding the pitfalls of caricature as a figure searching desperately for a place in a world that “just isn’t built for people like me” as the expression of his musical talent begins to peek out from behind the curtain.

Loading article content

He’s a believably layered character, a joy to be around one minute as he wryly comments on the world around him and frustrating the next because of his reluctance to get on and start his life properly. But what exactly the latter means — particularly for someone riddled with hopes for the artist he knows he is deep down but without the immediate means to make it come to fruition — is one of the film’s primary and rewardingly explored themes.

Although he is the star and the undying focus of a film clearly made by fans through and through, it’s also a film that takes nice care and attention for its supporting characters. There’s the rocky relationship between his bickering mum and dad (Peter McDonald and Simone Kirby), his sparky co-worker Christine (Jodie Comer) who tries to take him down a peg or two and newfound artist friend Linda (Jessica Brown Findlay) to whom Steven looks on with a combination of affection and a not-so-thinly-veiled, but never nasty, jealousy at her opportunity to head down to London.

It might surprise that we never actually get to hear any of the songs that the musician would go on to make famous alongside guitarist cohort and co-songwriter Johnny Marr (as played here by Laurie Kynaston). Particularly conspicuous by its absence is the song Still Ill, the lyrics from which the film takes its title — “England is mine, it owes me a living, but ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye.”

Whether that’s down to the unauthorised and fairly low-key nature of this particular biographical telling or a clear cut and bold storytelling device, the result is the same: a film that allures and creates a sense of lyrical enigma about its central figure where most biopics would simply walk dutifully through the birth to death beats that we’ve seen countless times before.

It works well as a portrait of a future musician that soaked up influences like a sponge and yet carved a place of his own. In that way it does exhibit some of the hallmarks of his indubitable style; inward-looking, challenging, playful and endearingly expressive all at once, with its voice-over of wry observations about life in modern England and reluctance to conform. Thanks to a droll sense of humour running throughout and a likeable, quietly charismatic lead performance, it is as accessible to Morrissey newcomers as it will be fascinating to fans.