Roughly two-thirds of the way through Anton Korbijn’s excellent debut feature Control, the double meaning of the film’s one-word title is made apparent; though an obvious reference to one of Joy Division’s more well-known songs, She’s Lost Control, what we see is the opposite: a portrait of a young man as an artist, who cannot cope with both the world he has created for himself, and the world that has been thrust upon him.
As with other rock biopics such as The Buddy Holly Story, the film’s denouement will come as no surprise, even to the viewer with only a passing aquaintance with the singer. There are also dramatic ironies for the more die-hard fans, for instance Curtis’ insistence that he will be on the plane taking the band on their tour of the USA; and once Iggy Pop’s The Idiot makes an appearance, well, we know the rest. However, what is a rather pleasant surprise is the film’s occasionally richly comic tone; this is not Gus Van Sant’s dreary Last Days, in which a quasi-Kurt Cobain mopes around Seattle for a while before topping himself; at times we are back watching 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s raucous biopic of another Manchester legend, the late Anthony H. Wilson. He makes regular appearances in Control, played brilliantly by Craig Ferguson, and almost all of them are sidesplittingly funny. Even more so with Toby Kebbell’s portrayal of manager Rob Gretton, whose constant volley of obscenities gets funnier as it gets progressively ruder. Surely no portrait of Manchester cannot omit this aspect of its culture?
As for the narrative, it initially follows the standard rock biopic formula: obliquely introducing the key players, wives, girlfriends, bosses, jobs, neighbourhoods, and so on. This, of course is standard practice, neccessary for those who are unaware of the factual background but also neatly framing the film’s exposition. What follows is a tender portrayal of different aspects of Ian Curtis’ life, and an attempt to understand what drove him to write such heartbreakingly beautiful but bleak words. Perhaps more than this, it is an attempt to understand his failed relationships; the screenplay borrows largely from Curtis’s wife Deborah’s memoir Touching From a Distance. Here she is played by Samantha Morton, who is seemingly mopping up all of the doomed women roles these days, though her portrayal here satisfactorily combines a combination of toughness and fragility.
And then we come on to Sam Riley’s performance; after watching Sean Harris as Curtis in 24 Hour Party People I thought his mimicry couldn’t be bettered, but Riley here provides a more complete character, fleshed out, warts and all. For the most of the later parts of the film he often comes across like a frightened young boy (a look that Pete Doherty seems to have hegemony over these days) compared to the confident, if detatched, Velvet Goldmine-esque glam rocker at the start. Onstage, he performs the same miracle that Joaquin Phoenix achieved as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, in that he makes the viewer forget they are watching an actor, instead completely inhabiting the role. Curtis’ distinctive dancing is replicated to a tee, similarly messrs Sumner, Hook and Morris are accurately aped; it is this attention to detail which gives the film its feeling of authenticity.
At this stage, it must be emphasised how good Corbijn’s photography of the band’s live performances is; clearly this is a man who has been to a few gigs in his time, and understands the dynamic between the performers and the crowd. In this sense I was reminded of how Wim Wenders demonstrated a similar knack in Wings of Desire, in which the ambience of a typically frenzied Nick Cave live performance is captured wonderfully. When these things are done well, it is as good as being there seeing the real thing; when done badly it creates distance between the viewer and the performances. Great to see that the band are clearly playing their instruments, and that Riley performs the songs himself, as this gives the live performances an organic feel to them, replicating that magical feeling when a band recreates live what one has heard a thousand times on record. Only twice do we hear the actual Ian Curtis singing, both times at key moments in the film, and both times with their two most ‘untouchable’ songs, Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere. Corbijn’s reverence for these is too great for them to be touched.