Anton Corbijn’s rock biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, Control, strays far from the norm of that genre in both the obviously high level of care devoted to the artwork of the film and the sensitivity in its treatment of the subject matter. The result is a soul-shaking success that left me gray and speechless for several hours. Don’t watch this film if you’re trying to quit smoking.
The film chronicles Curtis’s life from his mid-teens to his suicide at the age of 23. It focuses mostly on his personal commitment to authenticity in his art, as well as his relationships with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Deborah Curtis, and with his mistress, a Belgian diplomat named Annik Honoré. It is suggested that his inability to make an ethical choice between the two women, in direct conflict with the yearning for moral clarity manifested in his music, was the central pathos of his life that ultimately led to his death.
I’m very aware of critical skepticism of our generation’s near-universal reaction to black-and-white film—that it suggests authenticity—but in the case of Control, the effect is palpable and perfectly defensible. Anton Corbijn’s other work in black-and-white photography is brilliant. It is not sentimental or manipulative for him, therefore, to remain in the vein of a medium to which he is well accustomed in his first full-length film. The black-and-white medium plays on the aesthetic of old home movies and ’70s fan photography, archives of lost experiences, often of lost people. It is, therefore, a fitting technique for the film.
The film avoids many of the cliché flaws of your run-of-the-mill music industry flick. For one thing, there is no boorish fascination with drug use. For another, it does not attempt to put drunken Manchester rockers on some sort of artiste-pedestal. As a biopic of a fascinating and emotionally stricken man, it of course dwells on Ian Curtis’s inner life, but the tone is never patronizing or idolizing. Of course, having never met the man, I can’t attest to the truth of the representation. But it is at least some comfort to note that none of the claims made for him by the aesthetics of the film are patently impossible.
Then again, there is definitely one point I can verify: Sam Riley absolutely nails the Ian Curtis flail dance, and does fairly well at singing his songs, too. Samantha Morton also does an excellent job as his put-upon wife, Deborah Curtis. Working together, the two managed to powerfully communicate a highly nuanced love-hate relationship. Good acting is all about interplay and synergy, but it’s quite rare to see two young actors portray all the intricacies of such a complicated relationship on screen. Alexandra Maria Lara also does brilliantly as the young and enthralled but terrified Honoré.
All of Joy Division’s big hits, as well as a few near misses, are touched on, but the music video feel is scrupulously avoided—which is surprising, since Corbijn is a widely regarded music video director. The feeling of the performance scenes is less about symbolism and more about raw power. These scenes are a welcome relief, actually, in what is really a rather long and grim film.
Growing up, Ian Curtis was a bit of a god to me, as I suspect he was to many people of my age (and of a certain persuasion). It was both gratifying and touching to see him portrayed with such delicacy and care. I would recommend this film strongly to any Joy Division fan, or anyone with three hours of sitting and two hours of crying to spare. Five stars.