Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Anton Corbijn, 2007
Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, Craig Parkinson

I grew up a rabid Joy Division fan and more than a decade later, I still listen to them on a regular basis and take great offense at what I consider hipster cash-ins on things I love. I refused to see Control in the theater, but after a few years of totally forgetting about it, I gave it a shot. Surprisingly, I was entertained. It's definitely flawed, but it is an interesting first effort from a director who spent decades making big budget music videos for bands like Depeche Mode and U2. It shouldn't be a big surprise that his first feature was a musical biography.

Based on the book by Deborah Curtis, Touching from a Distance, the film is about the short life and suicide of musician Ian Curtis. It begins with brief snapshots of his high school years, when he met his future wife Debbie, listened to the music that influenced his career, and wrote poetry. After he and Deborah married, they moved into a small house and found dull work at an employment agency. Warsaw, his first band, soon morphs into Joy Division. They play shows, record an album, and find enough success to go on European and US tours. Debbie gets pregnant and she and Ian have a daughter. He has an affair and contemplates ending his marriage, but when Debbie finds out and asks for a divorce, he tries to win her back. Then he hangs himself.

The major flaw of this film is that it plays out like a series of almost unconnected vignettes. The script doesn't explore any of the characters in depth and it's impossible to understand any of their motivations, particularly Ian's. It's particularly unclear why he marries Debbie, who is portrayaed as unattractive, dull, and controlling. It make perfect sense that he would want to leave her for the lovely, charming, and somewhat exotic Annik. Though it is a reasonably faithful portrayal of Curtis's life, it is all surface value and no substance.

Relative newbie Sam Riley is believable as Curtis and I'm sure it's the fault of the screenplay, not Riley, that Curtis's thick shell is never cracked to expose the suffering person underneath. To Corbijn's benefit, Curtis is a hard figure to capture, having almost totally slipped the bonds of reality to live on as a figure of legend, imagination, and distant memory. Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar) gives a good performance as Debbie, though I absolutely hated every second of the character. She was unsympathetic, annoying, and incredibly frustrating. She's basically a stereotypical housewife. Ian is loving, but controlling, growing more distant as the film and his illness progresses.

Control is a cold and isolating film that might not be a particularly successful biography, but is a great portrait of loneliness. There is some lovely cinematography that captures the depressing realism of working class northern England in stark black and white. The live performances are well done, though that was expected. Corbijn is obviously most comfortable with these shots and Riley certainly studied Curtis's performative style.

I was disappointed that the film barely spent any time on the other members of the band, who are all interesting personalities in their own right and went on to form New Order after Curtis's death. If I had to pick one Joy Division film, I have to say I prefer Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, but they are almost opposite works. The region 1 DVD has a lot of interesting extras and a commentary track, but I would start with a rental.

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