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CONTROL (Dir. Anton Corbijn)

Posted: October 8th, 2007, by Alex McChesney

Anton Corbijn’s Control follows the life of Ian Curtis, from a teenager who got married too young through his time with Joy Division, struggles with epilepsy and eventual suicide at the age of only 23. Based on his widow Deborah’s memoir “Touching From a Distance”, as well as the testimony of many of those who knew him, it aims to be a definitive portrayal of a young man whose influence would live longer than he did himself.

And this is very much a film about Curtis. If you expect a piece about the Manchester music scene of the 70’s, you’ll come away disappointed. Nor is it a film about Joy Division, the other members being somewhat sidelined. Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis as an unremittingly serious and brooding young man, slowly being pulled apart by the pressures of fatherhood, the worsening of his epilepsy, the numbing side-effects of the cocktail of drugs prescribed to him in a vain attempt to control it, and guilt over his affair with Belgian fanzine-writer Annik HonorĂ© (Alexandra Maria Lara). While Riley turns in a decent performance, he’s hampered by a script that doesn’t allow him a lot of range on the other side of the emotional spectrum, which weakens the film’s portrayal somewhat. Few people on this earth live inside a black cloud 24/7 and are still able to function, and, indeed, Curtis’s former bandmates have gone on record to point out that, as troubled as he was, they were still mates and still able to share a laugh and a joke from time to time. But beyond some very brief teenage hi-jinks at the start of the film, the image of him presented here, in playing him so straight and po-faced, seems less human given the absence of any light whatsoever. Even the twenty-minutes or so of Michael Winterbottom’s jokey 24 Hour Party People that deal with Tony Wilson’s Joy Division years managed to shine a little light on the character, and when his death comes in that film it packs a greater emotional punch.

Control is, however, a strikingly beautiful movie. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white, Corbijn’s long career as a photographer is in evidence, bringing a stark beauty to grim 70’s England, though it’s perhaps worth noting that Manchester itself doesn’t get much of a showing beyond the Macclesfield housing estates where Curtis lives. But for all its faults elsewhere, Control succeeds visually, and I’m keen to see what Corbijn does next.

The supporting cast are largely excellent, with the actors playing Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris having learned the actual songs and playing them with a fitting sense of awkwardness, since if you’ve seen archive footage of Joy Division you’ll know that although they could make a mighty noise they never looked entirely comfortable doing so. Subsequently, the scenes of the band performing live and in the studio are among the film’s highlights, though while Riley does a good impersonation of Curtis his voice occasionally fails to capture that famous low-frequency growl. Samantha Morton maybe fails to convince as a teenager in the film’s opening scenes but is generally very good as Deborah Curtis. But it’s Toby Kebbel who really shines as manager Rob Gretton, delivering every sweary fucking line with total relish and providing the film’s comic relief. If his perfomance in Dead Man’s Shoes wasn’t enough to get him recognized as a serious talent, Control has to.

But it’s the writing that ultimately lets the film down. When tackling a biopic, it is expected that there are key moments in the subject’s life that have to be tackled, like navigational waypoints in the audience’s journey through the movie. However, although the writer is obliged to hit them, and even expected to by an audience that probably knows the basic structure of the story already, it’s still important for these events to be woven smoothly into the fabric of the narrative – you aren’t producing a documentary, but a work of fiction which may be based on reality but can only emulate it. Too often, unfortunately, Control fails to hit these marks smoothly, relying on some sadly lumpen dialog to dump info on the viewer. The worst instance of this surely being the introduction of Gretton, who basically walks in and says “I’m Rob Gretton and I’m going to be your manager.” Yes, the character is a cocky bastard, and if this were an isolated instance of Control showing rather than telling it would get a laugh and be forgiven, but sadly it isn’t, and along with that most deadly of cinematic sins: using a voice-over to indicate how a character is feeling (That some of it comes from Curtis’ own writings is no excuse.) it robs the film of the powerful impact it could have had, by slapping you awake and reminding you that this is a movie.

The late Tony Wilson was fond of quoting John Ford: “If it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.” But as exciting as legends are, they can be dangerously two-dimensional. Enjoyable though it is, Control feeds the myth rather than humanizing its subject.

Alex McChesney

Alex was brought up by a family of stupid looking monkeys after being lost in the deep jungles of Paisley. Teaching him all their secret conga skills (as well as how to throw barrels at plumbers), Alex was able to leave for the bright lights of Glasgow where adventure struck him and he needed all his conga skills to save the world and earn the hand of a lovely Texan princess. He now keeps a low profile alphabeticising his record collection and making sock monkeys in the likenesses of his long lost family.


3 Responses to CONTROL (Dir. Anton Corbijn)

  1. JGRAM

    Last Days crossed with Coronation Street with lashings of pretention and horrible miscasting.

    After the fun 24 Hour Party People I really came away disappointed by Control

    The Rob Gretton character reminded me of the guy from Shine being the manager in Almost Famous, not a patch on the Rob Gretton from 24 Hour Party People

    The Tony Wilson was too much like a young Bruce Forsyth (kind of)

    The Peter Hook was just don’t….as we know Peter Hook to be (at any age)

    And the Martin Hannett…..nah

    The film really annoyed me

  2. David Stockwell

    Excellent review Alex!

  3. John

    A bad film based on an awful book.

    Although Samantha Morton was good, I thought.

    Did anyone else chuckle their way through the Ian Curtis ‘crazy dancing’? He looked like a marching gnome. There was a lot of sustained laughter in the cinema.