REVIEW: Control [2007]

“Love will tear us apart, again”

Anton Corbijn has finally joined the ranks of his contemporaries Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Mark Romanek in directing his first full-length feature. No one could have been a better choice than this still photographer and music video director of cutting edge bands like Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, and, of course, Joy Division themselves with the video for “Atmosphere” (albeit eight years after the death of frontman Ian Curtis). Corbijn has the sensibilities to craft a gorgeous study of a man on the cusp of greatness and the humanity of himself, which keeps him from taking that next leap. The cinematography is glorious in its stark, high contrast, black and white, the performance scenes feel realistic and genuine, and he gets some monster performances from every cast member. Just a few hours ago I was once again mentioning to a friend my apprehension and dislike for biopics, and then I am treated to Control. Not only a biography that seems to truly capture the subject at hand, but also a superb film to stand alongside any genre out there.

Joy Division’s lead singer, as portrayed here—I will admit to knowing next to nothing about the band before viewing, possibly enhancing my pleasure as there were no trace of annoyance when something didn’t mesh to reality—was not your run-of-the-mill rockstar. Ian Curtis was an everyman like you and me, a fallible creature, both confused and naïve in his young age. Marrying so early in life, Curtis had a child, a day job, and a gig fronting one of the hottest bands of the time. What started as a way for expression, however, soon becomes another slice of trouble in his already crumbling life. When diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition for which he once tried to help afflicted gain employment, he begins a regiment of medication concoctions, hoping to find a combination to alleviate the suffering. Mixed with his late night shows and high alcohol consumption, both frowned upon by his doctor, Curtis maybe the only star I know to have fallen into his psychological descent from prescribed drug use. Ever more depressed as his love blossomed between his wife, child, and mistress, Curtis could never find the balance to deal with the fame and the fans. After all he gave in life and onstage, they just had one answer for him…We want more.

Truthfully, Sam Riley is quite a find. Whether his talent is real or just catered perfectly to this role—I’d like to believe the former—he is amazing. Totally embodying Curtis, Riley’s face is never shown with a shred of “acting” noticeable. His blank stares, the weak smiles, the crying, and the pain of his seizures all come across as though we are viewing a documentary. Complete with Curtis’ unique dance style, it is like watching history as it happens. Credit the rest of his bandmates for adding to the realism in each performance sequence, as well as the supporting cast. I was a bit unimpressed at first with Samantha Morton as his wife Debbie, but that feeling quickly went away. What appeared juvenile and trying too hard to play 20 years old eventually came together as a pretty solid piece of work. Always great, Morton shines when the world begins dissolving around her, but her love for her husband never wavers behind the tears and anger. Besides her, mention also needs to be made for Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton. Starting as comic relief, his character plays a tremendous role in Curtis’ life. While the band seemed to be unable to deal with their singer’s affliction, Kebbell stays by his side throughout, doing what he can to try and keep him together.

Control is a remarkable achievement that succeeds by adhering to the one aspect I like in biopics, keeping it simple. We are only shown a few years in his life, the meeting of his wife and bandmates and the short-lived tenure of what was Joy Division. This capsule in time is allowed to evolve and flesh out all the emotions and turmoil that went on. From the highs to the lows, the comradery to the adultery, Curtis is always portrayed as the tragic hero he was. Everything his music did for its listeners, all the power and hope it instilled in the fans, came at a steep price. Draining himself of life and confidence and love, Curtis was never going to be able to keep the ride going into the US. Corbijn gets every moment correct, straight through to the inevitable conclusion. Never trying to shock us, he treats the ending with immense compassion and love. Subdued and heart-breaking, Curtis’ demise is allowed to be as beautifully touching as the rest of his ever-so-short time on earth.

Control 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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