In 1973 Macclesfield, England, a young Ian Curtis (Sam Riley, "24 Hour Party People") lines his eyes, steals his sister's jacket, dreams to Aladdin Sane and meets his future wife Deborah (Samantha Morton, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), but a scant seven years later with his own musical fame exploding, an exotic foreign lover pining and prescription pills for epilepsy replacing the old recreational ones, Ian feels he's lost "Control."
Still photographer and video director Anton Corbijn makes a smashing feature directorial debut with his period biographical film about the late Joy Division frontman who committed suicide at the age of 23. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe's stunning black and white photography recalls the early Beatles days, Stuart Sutcliffe's doomed artist reborn in the post punk era.
Tall schoolboy Curtis appreciated poetry, daydreamed in class and worked at the local unemployment agency. When he met who he thought was his soul mate, he married while still in his teens. Ian and Debbie pursued his musical dreams by going to early Bowie concerts and attending the infamous Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976, where Ian met his future band mates. First Warsaw, later Joy Division (named after the Nazi slave prostitution wings of concentration camps), the band was championed by Manchester television personality Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson), their records produced by Martin Hannett (Ben Naylor) for Wilson's Factory Records. But after a gig in London, Curtis experienced his first epileptic fit and was diagnosed with the disease shortly thereafter. The constant trial and error to find the right balance of prescription drugs played havoc with his physical and emotional state. Fame brought undo pressures as well, not the least of which was Belgian journalist Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara, "Downfall") who Ian was drawn to while being wracked with guilt over the tremendous debt he felt to Debbie (they had also had a daughter, Natalie, by this time). Then there was their first upcoming American tour. Ian hung himself in his and Debbie's kitchen the day before the band was set to leave.
TV writer Matt Greenhalgh has adapted Deborah Curtis's autobiography "Touching from a Distance," but although we are looking through the wife's perspective the tale feels evenly balanced and, although familiar, fresh due to terrific performances and stylish filmmaking. In giving the late seventies a fifties look, Corbijn harkens back to Britain's kitchen sink genre and casts his subject as a rebel. Sam Riley gives one of the best performances of the year as Curtis, from his eerie recreations of Curtis's performing style with his weird fast walking arm movements and baritone singing voice, to his conflicted personality. The man who helped those with disabilities (he was first introduced to epilepsy on the job) was exactly the type of person who could be torn apart by being unfaithful to his family. Sean Harris was phenomenal as Ian in "24 Hour Party People," but Riley humanizes him to greater extent. As Debbie, Morton is dead on - supportive, heartbroken, ultimately realistic. Watch her watch her husband on TV for the first time - Morton gives us the sense Debbie cannot believe she is married to this man who is becoming a rock star before her eyes.
Toby Kebbell ("Alexander," "Match Point") provides most of the film's humor as the band's manager Rob Gretton as does Parkinson as Wilson. As the rest of Joy Division James Anthony Pearson makes the strongest impression as the Andy Warhol stylized lead guitarist Bernard Sumner. Joe Anderson ("Becoming Jane") gives a dour reading of bassist Peter 'Hooky' Hook and Harry "Brothers of the Head" Treadaway is obsessed drummer Stephen Morris. All the band member actors performed for the film and the acted Joy Division is so convincing that after a rendition of 'Candidate' I literally almost jumped from my seat and started clapping. This is the point where Ian's lover Annik is introduced and the Romanian Maria Lara, who looks like an amalgamation of great French and English actresses, is a fetching counterpoint to Morton's British housewife, a more artistically correct choice for Curtis.
Ruhe's photography makes textures pop - the uneven surface of a frosted glass door or the pattern in a wallpaper mesmerize and heighten the deep-rooted sense of a time and place (Corbijn shot in actual locations, at one point having Riley walk from Curtis's home to where he worked). Soundtrack selections are, of course, that which influenced the band and features David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the Buzzcocks.
Joy Division can be heard over the film's final image - smoke wafting into the sky from a chimney, suggesting both the band's death camp moniker and Curtis's own cremation. Corbijn has made a very moving film about a groundbreaking artist whose abbreviated life contributed a lasting legacy.
The film is presented in widescreen and is stuffed full of extras although the recent documentary "Joy Division" is getting a separate DVD release - a super edition combining the two would have seemed the proper way to go. There are four upcoming release commercials to go through before hitting the film's menu ("Joy Division," "I'm Not There," "Lou Reed's Berlin," and "Pete Seger: The Power of Song").
Commentary is available from director Anton Corbijn and he covers things from every angle, from his own nostalgia for vinyl to his experiences shooting photos of the band and his approach to making his first film. Black and white is a given as the band's history as well as their album covers are mostly non color. Corbijn obviously loves his subject, his cast and his resulting film, which initially cut to three hours. (He misses some of what he cut, yet there are no deleted scenes on the disk.) He spreads credit around to his wonderful cinematographer and art director as well as some of the surprise choices Riley made, notably when writing (he composed the off color note handed to Wilson in a pub - Corbijn kept it, then later held it in his own hands for the cutaway shot that went into the film). He describes how he initially wanted a rainy, grey film and got a sunny summer and how ultimately he thinks that worked in the film's favor - it certainly aids the windblown kiss scene between Morton and Riley ('my Tarkovsky moment' says Corbijn). He also peppers the commentary with anecdotes and tidbits of fact. Curtis and Honoré's affair was not sexual we learn. Look just right of center at the audience first row during Joy Division's first performance after Curtis's first suicide attempt and you will see Curtis's daughter Natalie done up as a punk. Corbijn also points out his own, extremely fleeting, cameo. The ending of the film is difficult for all, particularly recording Riley's performance of Curtis's last epileptic fit which was so intense he gave himself rug burns on his forehead. We also learn that "24 Hour Party People" got it wrong - Curtis hung himself while kneeling.
The Making of Control also features Corbijn being interviewed and some of it is repetitive, but not unduly so. We hear more about how casting occurred and how the band actors became so good at performing the original idea of having them mime to "Joy Division" was dropped (the disk also includes three full, uncut performances by the actors that really impress). Unlike most featurettes, this one does not merely repeat the theatrical trailer and show clips from the film, although they are sprinkled in for punctuation. Writer Greenhalgh reveals himself as a New Order fan, Joy Division having been before his time. Riley talks about the eeriness of changing costume in Ian Curtis's actual bedroom. His three bandmate actors discuss the process of becoming a band.
Conversations with Anton Corbijn is not, as expected, more of the same, but instead features him talking about his experiences with Joy Division and showing the pictures he took and talking about why he thinks Curtis committed suicide. He does touch on some subjects again - the decision to shoot in b&w, using actual locations - but not at as much length and from a slightly different perspective. This section also includes interviews with the director from the Cannes Film Festival. Three videos feature one live 1979 Joy Division performance of Transmission, a 1988 video Corbijn put together for the band's song Atmosphere and the video made for the film featuring The Killer's cover of Shadowplay which played over the film's end credits (a cover Corbijn has told us he used to connect the band's music to today). A stills collection is shots from the movie, promotional material includes theatrical trailers and a collection of one sheets on the movie's soundtrack album, Deborah Curtis's book, Joy Division's albums and some facts from The Epilepsy Foundation.
There is a lot of material included with the DVD, but there could have been more, particularly some of those lamented deleted scenes. Still it is a terrific package and even better movie.
Robin gives "Control" an A-.
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