(2007)4Jason BuchananIf there was any real justice in the international cinema community, Anton Corbijn's painstakingly heartfelt reflection on the tragically brief life and career of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis would get at least as many Academy Award nominations as James Mangold's commendable but comparatively pedestrian Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. The performances and characterization in Control are at least as emotionally resonant, and the screenplay, visual artistry, and vision that guide this film vividly reflect the emotional involvement of the filmmakers in a way that's as rare as it is extraordinary. Unlike documentaries, which when fueled by a fascinating subject can be absorbing and interesting even if they aren't assembled with complete mastery, biopics need a steady hand at the helm to be completely successful on all levels. The realization that a former music-video director had been charged with the task of recounting the life of such a complex and revered rock icon understandably raised a field of red flags amongst many fans: after all, let's be brutally honest, music-video directors aren't necessarily known for their skill in forming a coherent narrative or eliciting performances that are in any way emotionally textured. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and one look at Corbijn's credentials are more than enough to indicate that he is the very personification of that exception. Having actually photographed Joy Division in the early stages of his career in addition to directing the haunting music video for their track "Atmosphere," Corbijn is possibly the most qualified filmmaker to adapt Deborah Curtis' autobiographical (and somewhat controversial) book Touching from a Distance despite his notable lack of experience as a traditional storyteller.
For music lovers who grew up in the 1970s and '80s and possessed an appreciation for something more than the mainstream, the story of Ian Curtis is a familiar one, and perhaps the most woeful since that of Jimi Hendrix or Keith Moon. A unique voice both literally and figuratively, Curtis penned lyrics that were far more contemplative, poetic, and profound than most of his peers, and was backed by a formidably creative lot that would subsequently go on to become New Order -- one of the most successful English musical acts of the 1980s and '90s. One glance at Curtis' lyrics reveal a man who was at once supremely talented and deeply insecure, larger-than-life but unfailingly human. Afflicted with epilepsy, torn between two women, and emotionally unguarded to a fault, Curtis' strengths and weaknesses were constantly at odds. To cast a relative newcomer in such an emotionally complex role is a real risk, especially when one considers that many of those who were closest to Curtis in life are still around to critique the performance. Fortunately for both the film and Curtis' memory, the decision to cast Sam Riley in the role of the iconic musical figure was quite simply a stroke of genius. Like Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Riley may not be the spitting image of Curtis, yet the manner in which he captures his subject's unique energy and monumental ennui is nothing short of astonishing -- five minutes into the film Riley is Ian Curtis, both in body and in spirit. Riley says more with an introspective glare than most actors could with ten lines of dialogue: the moments in which inspiration strikes him or a profound realization takes hold are deeply moving in their emotional sincerity. Lest fans begin to suspect that this is an entirely grim-faced affair, moments of levity scattered throughout serve well to lighten the mood when needed, while simultaneously lending the more sober scenes a laudable sense of emotional gravity.
Despite the fact that this is Corbijn's first feature film, he's certainly no stranger to the camera and his work with cinematographer Martin Ruhe proves one of the film's most immediately arresting features. Working in seductive, slightly grainy gradients of black and white, Corbijn and Ruhe perfectly capture the bleakness of 1970s Macclesfield in a manner that would be oppressive were it not so depressingly beautiful. By the same token, their masterful use of framing provides the film with some of its most emotionally revealing moments -- especially in the early scenes in which Ian and Deborah are drawn together and the later scenes in which his attentions shift to smitten but longing musical journalist Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara). The performances are solid all around, with Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson, and Harry Treadaway rounding out the band commendably, and Toby Kebbell continuing to deliver on the promise made in Dead Man's Shoes as flippantly curt band manager Rob Gretton. Prolific U.K. television actor Craig Parkinson gives English national treasure Steve Coogan a notable run for his money as inimitable Factory Records founder Tony Wilson (though to be fair, the character doesn't have nearly as much to do here as he did in 24 Hour Party People -- that "other" Joy Division movie), and Samantha Morton is striking in her portrayal of Deborah Curtis before being relegated to something of a supporting player somewhere around the halfway mark. Musical purists will be happy to know that the actors portraying the members of Joy Division actually learned to play the songs featured in the film (an attention to detail that lends a remarkable sense of authenticity to the dynamic live performance scenes), with the use of David Bowie and Iggy Pop tunes proving particularly powerful. Few biopics -- musical or otherwise -- manage to capture the essential moments that truly define their subject's character, and thanks to Corbijn's connection with the real-life Ian Curtis and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh's perceptive adaptation of Deborah Curtis' book, Control proves a notable exception.
Prolific music-video helmer and award-winning photographer Anton Corbijn makes his feature directorial debut with this biographical drama concerning the late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Based on the book Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis & Joy Division by the enigmatic singer's wife Deborah Curtis, Control documents the life of a legend who changed the face of modern music but never lived to witness the remarkable impact of his life's work. The time was the late 1970s, and the post-punk explosion was just gaining momentum in England. At the forefront of this movement was a band named Joy Division. Formed in 1976 and first calling themselves Warsaw, Joy Division favored mood and expression over the aggressive stance that had come to define punk rock. The band was championed by Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, and collaborated with producer Martin Hannett on the album that would become their undisputed masterpiece -- 1979's Unknown Pleasures. But despite the band's rising popularity, lead singer Curtis was not in good mental or physical health due a debilitating battle with epilepsy and an extramarital affair, and hanged himself in his Macclesfield home on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour. Newcomer Sam Riley stars opposite Samantha Morton in the film that sets out to tell the definitive story of a true rock & roll legend.