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Arts

This Is England director sold his guitars to make Morrissey film

The Smiths frontman, Morrissey, maintains an elusive presence for even his most die-hard fans and first-time film director Mark Gill left no stone unturned to script a dramatisation of his formative years. Francesca Gosling talks to the director and lead actor Jack Lowden

Jack Lowden as Morrissey and Laurie Kynaston as Johnny Marr in England Is Mine

IF YOU'RE seeking glowing praise for an artistic endeavour, Morrissey is unlikely to be in your top 10 list of cheerleaders. But that did not stop ambitious film-maker Mark Gill from centring his first ever feature-length movie on the Smiths frontman's early life.

In fact, he dares hope that the Mancunian music legend might even enjoy the biopic.

Morrissey certainly will not be able to criticise a lack of dedication, after the musician and lifelong fan sold all his guitars to pay his way through film school, just to make it.

Now, after two years, a few million dollars, some dreadful auditions (finally won by War & Peace star Jack Lowden), hours of legal discussion and painstaking research, Gill's England Is Mine opens in cinemas.

Named after the Smiths' Still Ill lyric "England is mine and it owes me a living," Gill delves into the elusive singer's younger years as the awkward and misunderstood Steven Patrick Morrissey, battling to make his mark against the workaday world of 1970s Stretford.

"I was interested in who wrote those first albums and realised it was Steven," says Gill. "Once I started looking into him, I thought, 'That's a story I can tell'. I knew I could do a young man struggling to find his way in the world, because I've been there.

"It's that artistic struggle to do something with your life, and how it's always a fight to do anything you think is worthwhile. Sometimes you are born into a world you don't feel you belong in, and you feel like you are drowning. As with any drowning person, you tend to grab hold of things – for Steven it was books, music and the strong women in his life."

Raised half a mile away from where Steven, now 58, lived with his Irish family, Gill (46) was sent by his own parents to a posh grammar school.

He explains: "Immediately I was exposed to new things and new ways of thinking, which ostracised me from the young lads I was growing up with, and I couldn't see my classmates outside school.

"Then The Smiths arrived when I was 15-16 and I finally thought, 'I've got someone'."

But what will that special someone think of his on-screen portrayal? Morrissey did not reply to Gill's many messages – with either criticism or approval.

"We've heard snippets of comments and we've been really respectful, making approaches before we started. He is surrounded by people so I don't know if my letters got through, but I know they were sent and they were heartfelt.

"I imagine he is morbidly fascinated by the idea. It must be very strange having somebody make a film about your life, but this is also the guy who wrote the lyric: 'I want to go down in celluloid history,' so we are giving him his wish.

"I don't want him to hate it, but I am taking his silence as a shrewd move.

"If the film is a disaster, he can say, 'Of course it was, because I wasn't involved,' and if it's well-received, he can say, 'Of course it's good, because it's about me'."

We meet teenage Steven as he begins to discover his talent for music and his passion for the written word and follow him through family domestics and his grudging stints working for the Inland Revenue and in the hospital.

We feel his pain and disappointment when his first band with Billy Duffy (who went on to become The Cult's guitarist) crumbles and his inspirational, intelligent "will they, won't they" friend, Linder Sterling, abandons him for an art opportunity in London.

And we leave him just as he finds a kindred spirit in Johnny Marr, kicking off the relationship that would become the definitive rock band of the 1980s.

It is not always an easy watch and neither Gill, nor Lowden waste time making the audience feel at ease with the prickly protagonist.

"You have to be honest and we all have characteristics that are not likeable," admits Gill.

"I wanted him to be a human being and that includes being arrogant, sometimes spiky with people, but also insecure, shy and vulnerable. You look at him and see a real person."

But Scottish actor Lowden (27) finds his temporary alter-ego much more charming.

Following a part in Dunkirk, and with no previous Morrissey interest, he says: "I find people who are struggling with the idea of themselves to be very honest people, and very endearing. I find him funny, and I enjoyed playing with his physicality.

"I have since become a massive Smiths fan. My favourite song is Panic."

The opposite goes for Gill, whose 10-year passion project has now left him unable to listen to the hits of his teenhood any more.

"It's still too raw and I get quite emotional listening to it," he says.

:: England Is Mine is released in cinemas today

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