Anton Corbijn's first feature film forges a fittingly bleak yet affecting depiction of the life and career of Joy Division frontman, the late Ian Curtis.

By Kirsty Matthewson

Control, the latest in a prolonged succession of artist biopics, is based on Deborah Curtis’ posthumous account of her husband Ian’s lamentably brief life (Touching From A Distance, 1995). Echoing critical reports of her memoir, you get the feeling that just part of the Joy Division frontman’s story is being told here — these doubts stemming from the often unhappy nature of the couple’s relationship (were Mr and Mrs Curtis particularly close, and if so, for how long?) Like the book, the film runs the risk of coming across as an account of what is was like to be Mrs Curtis (who co-produces Control) rather than a proper insight into the artist or Joy Division; the potential to engage with the fan base Curtis inspired is limited indeed. However, the film resolutely aspires to authenticity — and is simply gorgeous to watch, with even the minor characters (often the other band members) etched out of the darkness.

Widely acknowledged for his music video work, Anton Corbijn displays the kind of assured direction you would attribute to a director with an extensive CV of feature-length credits. Filmed in his trademark black and white (and infinite shades of grey), that once made even the goatish Bono look okay, Corbijn’s shots often linger — particularly on Curtis (played by Sam Riley), the focus occasionally making him appear die-cut from the rest of the set. Original locations in Macclesfield (where Curtis both began and ended his life) are used to soporific effect, contrasted with mesmerising concerts in cavernous and sporadically filled venues. Rumours abounded during production that Corbijn was obsessively concerned with the look of the film, while his devout interest in Curtis is conspicuous to say the least. Riley (who played Mark E Smith in 24 Hour Party People) is a convincing and frequently poignant actor who bears a keen likeness to Curtis. An intermittent Northern band member himself, Riley has evidently studied Curtis’s onstage mannerisms and almost has it down pat, expertly replicating the marching agitations associated with him. Although I wouldn’t say this is her finest performance, Samantha Morton does exhibit great depth and sensitivity in her role as Debbie. She is the only character to transcend the high-contrast monochrome; at times, such as when napping with daughter Natalie, she is bathed empathetically in pale golden light.

The musical choices are flawless, with great care taken over the inclusion of other artists from the era. There was never any danger of Control turning into Factory Girl or a film of that ilk; Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks, Lou Reed and the inevitable Bowie all amble along in the background at well-chosen moments. Control is not a production with an interest in increasing record sales of the band, or anyone else — and neither is it is overly concerned with portraying a period or a scene in the vein of 24 Hour Party People. The absence of ‘70s iconography is pleasingly considered, though few would be left doubting its historical perspective.

Regrettably we are only given glimpses of the band’s advancement into the nascent stages of fame - and if Bernard Sumner et al weren’t so well shot, they might have appeared seriously unengaged with the storyline at large. Sumner, endearingly played by James Anthony Pearson, is as vulnerable and exposed as a small puppy in headlights. His character is the regulating force in the film, evoking the juvenescence of the band (Curtis was just 23 when he took his own life on the eve of their inaugural US tour). During his last conversation with Curtis, Sumner reveals that his clothes are laid out on the bed waiting to be packed, and that he is afraid he won’t able to sleep that night from sheer excitement. Toby Kebbell as Manager Rob Gretton, meanwhile, is just wonderful — the right mix of sleaze, sweetheart and foul bastard, always with one hand on his wallet.

Curtis’ affair with Belgian Annick Horore (Alexandra Maria Lana) is given a good deal of credence, the extent of their involvement demonstrated in his final letter to her. Reflecting the actors’ true-life relationship, the chemistry between Lana and Riley is quietly abundant, yet, as with other aspects of the film, we aren’t exactly burdened with detail. Caught in the spiralling wretchedness of his own story, their relationship is destined to fail, as Curtis is torn between resisting failure as a father and husband and being with the woman he loves. It could also be said that his relationship with Annick appeared to be free from the problems he had with his wife; Annick, as he asserts on their first meeting, is an ‘independent woman’ — something Curtis had actively discouraged in Debbie, and something that ultimately diminished his interest in her. His first suicide attempt exemplifies the detachment he feels from his family and his own emotions — in his parting letter to Deborah he simply states ‘no need to fight any more, please give my love to Annick’.

Curtis’s epilepsy is shown as the hindmost imbalance in a succession of issues that draw him towards his desperate conclusion, with the administration of prescription drugs from an ill-informed doctor increasing the frequency of seizures and the breakdown of his marriage. He becomes obsessed with the negative effect of his actions on others and his success is dwarfed by the confinement he experiences from his own health and temperament. And so ensues a self-perpetuating spiral of guilt, despair and despondency, with the increasingly inert frontman finding himself unable to answer his obligations and deal with the pressures of his life in its ever-shifting state.

The viewpoint of the story, together with aspects omitted or devalued, will no doubt rile some viewers — and discrepancies regarding characters and relationships may indeed make avid fans despair. But the film’s overall speed and flow lulls you into the idea of it all being a journey of some kind, told by a person with a valid and affecting story to tell, and after a while such gripes pale in importance. Although the storyteller holds an evident tenderness for Curtis’ character, there is never any intention of glorifying him, of portraying him as a man without fault (that he coerces Debbie to work shortly after childbirth when he resigns from his job at the dole office typifies the general level of neglect in their relationship).

Ultimately the contrasting calm and disorder of the film, and the ease in which the scenes fit together in a world that becomes increasingly chaotic, draws you without judgment to the conclusion which, knowing anticipation aside, has a natural and comprehensible feel. A tragic but not unfathomable coda to an unsustainable life.
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