Rewatched this wonderful and sad movie, based on life and death of Ian Curtis, the lead singer and lyricist of Joy Division.
While I’m now a fan of their music, at the time of its release I knew very little about the band, and went to see the movie primarily because of its director, the Dutch photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn. You can’t be a massive U2 fan and not know the work of their unofficial photographer and visual chronicler, but other than that I just plain adore his stuff, especially his black-and-white photography. This film was a labour of love which Corbijn partly financed by himself, and as you’d expect it looks absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful black-and-white films I’ve ever seen, with strikingly lit and composed shots everywhere you look. Even the grubby provincial town in North West England where Curtis and his family lived looks bloody exquisite.
The film starts with Curtis as a Bowie-loving, eyeliner-wearing teenager, and follows his early marriage to Debbie, a local girl who is initially introduced as his friend’s girlfriend, to the formation of Joy Division and their rise to fame, Curtis’ struggle with epilepsy, and his affair with Annik, a Belgian journalist who he meets during the band’s tour. Though it has a tragic story at its heart, which culminates with Curtis taking his life at the age of 23, unable to deal with guilt and pressures of his stage and family lives, I forgot how funny the film often is. Particularly in its first half, with streaks of dry English humour and the wisecracks from the band’s fast-talking manager (“Where’s my £20?” “In my f*ck-off pocket!”).
The film is also memorable for its electrifying live gig scenes. I’ve seen many musical biopics that do a great job recreating performances by famous musicians, but for me Control is probably the only film that I’ve seen that absolutely nails what it’s like to be at a concert, the feel of it. Not just from the point of view of the band, but from the point of view of the concertgoer as well. There’s a short sequence early on which slowly pans across the audience right before the stage, with every person looking like they’ve disappeared into their own little world – which is precisely what a live show feels like to me, the world outside just falling away with nothing left but the lit stage in front of you.
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis is mesmerising, with a haunting aloof quality that always marks him apart from whoever he’s around. I don’t know how accurate his portrayal is compared to the real-life Curtis, but from what I gathered he at the very least absolutely nailed his distinct mannerisms and jerky onstage movements. I’ve read Deborah Curtis’ Touching from a Distance biography some time after seeing the movie for the first time, and it feels like the movie toned down a lot of his darker personality traits – here he comes off more like a lost little boy even when he’s being cruel towards his wife.
Samantha Morton’s performance as Debbie is another standout, she is such a raw, expressive actress it’s a shame she hasn’t had a bigger career. Debbie’s love for her husband, her hurt as he distances himself away, her grief and anger over the affair just bleed off the screen. My only quibble is that at times it’s a bit too obvious that she’s older than the character she’s playing; Debbie looks and acts like a teenager in the early scenes, but once she and Ian are married then boom she looks and behaves like a mature woman. In a way it’s perhaps appropriate because Debbie is a coper holding the family together and looking after their daughter, whose very existence her husband can’t seem to deal with.
On rewatch, the gorgeous actress who played Annik, Ian’s lover, looked naggingly familiar; after checking the credits I realised why – she played Niki Lauda’s wife in Rush, one of my favourites from two years ago. Here she essentially does the same trick of giving life and dimension to an underwritten character through her still, soulful, intelligent presence. It’s easy to see why Curtis would be attracted to this sophisticated, worldly woman who seems to come from a different world that has nothing to do with his home life. It would have been easy to portray Annik as an evil home-wrecker, or Debbie as a dull housewife, but the movie, to its credit, treats both women sympathetically.
The movie does lose some of its energy and momentum in the second half, as it moves through Curtis’ depression and anguish towards its tragic conclusion (which is thankfully implied rather than shown). Also, because of the running time restrictions and the focus on Curtis’ personal life, it skips over other relationships in his life, his parents for instance. Apparently he also had a younger sister, but she’s only shown in one single scene early on, never to appear again. The relationships and dynamics within the band are likewise rather sketchy – this is not really a film about Joy Division, as such. Still, Control remains one of my favourite onscreen biographies and music-themed films.