Control (Dir. Anton Corbijn, 2007)
I’ve never really liked Biopics very much. First of all, enjoyment of them tends to depend on your appreciation for the specific subject. Secondly, particularly in films about music and pop culture, they tend to glamorise depression, mental illness, drug taking and alcoholism in a way that must be singularly unhelpful to many people. Rock legends rarely make for particularly sympathetic figures and there have been some mind-numbingly tedious films based on their lives (Oliver Stone’s The Doors springs most immediately to mind). I therefore approached photographer Anton Corbijn’s debut feature film ‘Control’, based on the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, with some degree of trepidation.
I should also point out at the outset that it’s next to impossible for me to judge this film on accuracy, given that I wasn’t even born when Curtis committed suicide, and I therefore never got to see Joy Division perform (although I have seen their songs performed by New Order). There are some delightful period touches (particularly the emphasis on public telephones and circular dial phones, which seem wonderfully archaic now) and the depiction of late-70s Manchester seems plausible if perhaps a little stereotyped. The film is also careful to show the tension between the mundanities of Curtis’ domestic and working life, and his burgeoning aspirations as a singer. There is a wonderful shot in real time of his long walk from home to work, the camera eventually moving behind him to reveal the word HATE emblazoned on his back. It’s a striking combination of confidence and simmering resentment.
The film is certainly flawed. The early scenes depicting Curtis’ late-teens have a lightness of touch and are affectionately witty, but are also inevitably a little rushed. The charting of Curtis’ formative influences (Bowie, Glam Rock, Allen Ginsberg etc) is cursory at best. Much better are the representations of Bowie and Sex Pistols gigs, the former attended by Ian and Deborah, the latter attended by the band, where the camera focuses on the audience rather than attempting to restage the gigs themselves. This is a masterful and direct way of capturing the spirit and significance of these performances. The focus on Curtis also means that the character development of the other members of Joy Division is more than a little sketchy. The unfeasibly good looking Harry Treadaway gets only a couple of lines as drummer Stephen Morris, and the portrayal of Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner is perhaps a little one-dimensional, Sumner appearing naïve and excitable, Hooky outspoken and confrontational.
Former 10,000 Things vocalist Sam Riley may have got the part of Curtis because of his wonderfully accurate adoption of his onstage mannerisms, complete with bizarre on-the-spot marching dance. Ultimately, he’s perhaps a little too handsome to play Curtis – who I always saw as a deeply compelling but rather sexless performer – but he has the combination of furious intensity and solipsistic unease just right.
Indeed, in getting the actors to recreate Joy Division’s music rather than relying on existing recordings, the film captures the ragged, untutored rush of ideas that must have made this music so exciting at the time. Corbijn in fact first came to England in 1979 as a Joy Division fan, desperate to photograph the band and much of the impetus for this film has come from his own personal affinity with the group. The onstage scenes are brilliantly photographed, and there are a couple of spectacular set-pieces – the riot in Derby when Curtis was too disturbed to go on stage and his disturbing onstage attack of epilepsy. The judicious use of original recordings at key moments (‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ when Samantha Morton as Ian’s wife Debbie finally uncovers his affair with fanzine writer Annik, ‘Atmosphere’ at the film’s conclusion) also emphasises the intense emotional power of Curtis’ work that has now rendered it timeless.
The central performances are all excellent. Riley captures Curtis’ transition from romantic poet to guilt-laden adulterer with subtlety and impressive range, whilst Samatha Morton is dependably excellent as Ian’s suffering wife Deborah. Both have a convincing naivety that possibly explains their ill-advised marriage at the age of just eighteen. Their confrontations towards the end of the film are appropriately claustrophobic, and there’s a particularly powerful moment where Curtis interrupts sex to break down in tears. It’s a compelling and uncomfortable portrait of a turbulent, dysfunctional relationship where love has lost.
Equally convincingly portrayed is Curtis’ burgeoning relationship with Annik Honore, the Belgian fanzine writer. She offers him something ‘different’ (or ‘foreign’, as manager Rob Gretton, hilariously portrayed by Toby Keppel, puts it) – something enticing and irresistible, which brings him escape from the mundane, but only with concurrent terrible guilt when he returns home. When she asks him to ‘tell me about Macclesfield’, it proves the age old dictum that anything can sound sexy when said in a French accent. Whilst love interests are so often underwritten, Annik’s feelings are remarkably well drawn. She is neither rendered the villain of the piece nor an unwitting pawn in the story, but rather convincingly human with complex and conflicting emotions of her own (‘I’ve never felt like this before but I also feel I don’t know who you are’).
It’s worth pointing out that whilst this film depicts a life story that is undoubtedly sad and frequently bleak, ‘Control’ is a surprisingly tender and humorous film. There are some wonderful moments, such as when Gretton comforts Curtis after his onstage fit: ‘It could be worse mate’, he says, ‘you could be the lead singer in The Fall’. There’s a much more sympathetic portrait of the late Tony Wilson here than in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, and, whether myth or reality, the scene where he signs Joy Division’s contract in his own blood is quite hilarious.
The film’s narrative arc is conventional but deftly handled, and its pacing is spot on. The script may occasionally tend towards the simplistic, but the moments of affecting humour more than compensate for this. The key to the success of ‘Control’ though comes with its almost effortless capturing of the energy and originality of the music. It also looks superb – fully justifying Corbijn’s decision to film in monochrome (apparently his memories of Joy Division are in black and white). Watching it, it’s easy to see just why Curtis has remained an iconic figure. In this sense, appreciation of Joy Division’s music is no pre-requisite to enjoying this engrossing and technically impressive film.