Directed by Anton Corbijn. The Miriam Collection.
When Anton Corbijn, best known for his work as a rock photographer and music video director, announced plans to film the story of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis, anticipation amongst Joy Division followers immediately rose, for although there has always been a great deal of familiarity with the band’s music, little has ever really been known and less even seen of Ian’s mysterious life.
Control’s back story probably has little relevance for those foreign to Joy Division and unfamiliar with Ian’s tragic tale, but should prove at least conversation-worthy amongst those who count themselves as at least casual fans. And as with any rock related biopic, the film is sure to spark a bit of controversy, especially considering Corbijn predominantly bases Control on the widow Deborah Curtis’s book Touching from a Distance, a memoir some have claimed to be a self-serving and embittered recollection of her husband’s life and legend.
What may be a disappointment to some followers is that Corbijn makes a concerted effort to focus on the couple’s tumultuous love story rather than on music history. This is not to say that the band remains in the background of the film, for much of the plot development relies on Joy Division’s rise, but it’s clear from the film’s opening minutes that Ian and Deborah’s relationship is top priority. Corbijn’s decision is a surprising one, considering the musical focus of his own working history, and forces the first time feature filmmaker to work with a script that unfortunately exposes some of Control’s weaker moments. While the story stays relatively true to the sources from which Corbijn draws, the film’s progression is at times a bit choppy and underdeveloped, thus leaving important factors leading to the story’s end, such as Ian’s increasing depression and anxiety, unconvincing in severity and extent. The consequence of these missed connections is the absence of any strong emotional response during moments in which they are intended and most crucial. Perhaps a deeper analysis of Ian’s deteriorating mental stability, and less on his marital affairs, would have aided in creating a more intense emotional connection and made for a more captivating tale.
Control’s value is clearly in the performance of Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown), who plays Deborah Curtis, and Sam Riley’s impressive portrayal of Ian. Complete with the same boyish, doe-eyed pastiness and awkward lank of Curtis himself, the relatively unknown Riley proves perfect for his role, copping not only Ian’s famously curious mannerisms but also delivering a respectable vocal performance. Interestingly, Corbijn initially never intended for Riley’s vocals to make the final mix, but his rapport with the other actors in the band was so tight that Corbijn scrapped his plans for overdubs, opting instead for live recording. Fittingly enough, the film’s stronger scenes are the ones featuring Riley and his on screen band mates as they plug through various selections from the Joy Division catalog, their version of “Transmission” being the most memorable.
In need of note is the fact Control is shot entirely in black and white, a move that effectively captures the mood and aesthetic of a British post-punk scene that had immersed itself in dark minimalism. It’s unfortunate that the movie’s cinema distribution in North America was limited, for the visually limiting DVD format hardly fulfills the film’s artistic vision. Even so, the disc does include some worthy extras, including a handful of old videos and interviews with the various members of cast and crew. Those ultimately makes Control a good rental pick although by no means a “need to own” piece for the movie collection.