Movie Review: Control
By Matthew Huntley
November 15, 2007
Going into Anton Corbijn's Control, I knew nothing about Joy Dvision, the punk band who quietly emerged from England in the late 1970s. I also knew nothing about the band's lead singer, Ian Curtis, who struggled with epilepsy, debauchery and depression before his untimely suicide in 1980. The only thing I knew was how Control would end, but even when it came time for that, I was hoping it wouldn't.
This is such a sad, grave and discouraging film. But it's also beautifully raw, poetically photographed and contains some of the best performances of the year. It's the best kind of biopic because you walk away feeling as though you really knew about the people being documented. Ian Curtis' life isn't romanticized but instead placed within our reach. Corbijn narrows the gap between Curtis' world and our own so that we can empathize with this poor soul. Take it from someone who's mostly ignorant about this film's subjects that it connects with viewers the way few films do.
Sure, the film rides a conventional wave in terms of its overall structure, but it crescendos toward a great emotional power. Even if the characters and situations were created from scratch instead of re-enacted, it would have played just as effectively because Corbijn makes Control work as a story first and foremost. The facts and accuracy are beside the point.
What's interesting about Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), at least in the way the film depicts him, is that he's not a "typical" junkie or a womanizer. The Hollywood biopic has become so conventional that audiences expect their subjects to be archetypal drug users with out-of-control libidos. And while such stories can work wonderfully on film (Ray, Walk the Line), it seems the studios are only willing to tell them a certain way. Curtis' story is different from most because, unlike Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, he was practically a child at the height of his career.
When we first meet Ian, he's a quiet recluse who finds inspiration and peace of mind through David Bowie and Iggy Pop. At 18, outside a Sex Pistols concert, he meets Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway), and Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), and they form a band called Warsaw. At their first recording session, Curtis changes their name to Joy Division (it refers to women in Nazi concentration camps who prostituted themselves for soldiers on leave; the name was originally described in the novel The House of Dolls).
After a successful gig that gets the crowd jumping, the group hires Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) as their manager, and thanks to Curtis insulting Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson), eventually make their way onto Wilson's television show, So It Goes. They go on to self-release their first extended play and tour around Europe. Eventually, Gretton books them for a two-week tour around America they'd never end up playing.
But Control isn't about Joy Division as much as it is Curtis' personal battles with his declining health, epileptic "fits" and his relationship with his young wife, Deborah, whose book, Touching From a Distance, was the basis for Matt Greenhalgh's screenplay.