Dir: Anton Corbijn
"See my true reflection
Cut off my own connections
I can see life getting harder
So sad is this sensation
Reverse the situation
I can't see it getting better"
Joy Division, The Sound of Music
Now that rock has retreated into nostalgia and has ceased to be a force for the new and exciting, it's perhaps inevitable that Joy Division's reputation is stronger than it has been at any time since the early 80s. Massively influential on any number of bands in the Interpol/Franz Ferdinand/Editors sub-genre, and frozen in time by Curtis's suicide (a lucrative 30th anniversary 'Unknown Pleasures' comeback tour is unlikely) they have now turned into something mythical. Would Control - Anton Corbijn's new biopic of Ian Curtis's life - with it's emphasis on gritty 70s realism retrieve reality from myth or simply add to the mausoleum of Curtis's memory.
We have kinda been here before, with 2001's rumbustuous "24 Hour Party People" which relied heavily on a tour-de-force performance from Steve Coogan as Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson. Where 24HPP played for laughs, Control is different, very different. Based on Debbie Curtis's memoirs, Touching From a Distance, it focuses more on Curtis himself, the relationships in his life, with his wife, his mistress and his epilepsy. The tone is sombre and insular, which Corbijn has emphasised (perhaps over-emphasised) by shooting in black and white. This looks great on the stills from the film, but begins to grate after a while, and feels artificial, making the 70s feel more remote than they are.
Corbijn is primarily a photographer, and this shows in certain ways. Some set-pieces are original and effective: late on, Curtis, troubled by many near-silent long distance phone calls looks up plaintively at a telegraph pole with wires stretching out geometrically, a metaphor for the dislocated connections in his life. Some of the pained domestic scenes, with Curtis trying to retreat into the angles of the corner of his living room, (as though he were trying to disappear into the walls) would also work brilliantly as photographs.
Where Control falls short is in it's narrative direction. Although Corbijn has not been too ambitious here - the film is strictly a linear narrative - there is little sense of momentum in Joy Division's career (the gigs all seem small scale, there is no mention of the fanatical extremes of prose that emerged in the music press), and the way in which Curtis became withdrawn after his epilepsy was diagnosed - a key feature of Touching From A Distance - isn't represented (Curtis seems withdrawn from the start).
The film, though, does have its positives, and they are major. The soundtrack is fabulous. The gigs were played live by the musically inexperienced actors and have an authentically rough edge, helped by being cranked out at top volume. Transmission and Dead Souls especially are superb. Secondly the casting is near perfect. James Pearson is a 100% deadringer for Bernard Sumner, almost spookily similar at times; and Tony Kebbell's Rob Gretton is also spot on. Of the majors, Samantha Morton is naive and vulnerable as Debbie Curtis - the girl who noticed and fell in love with Ian's rock star cool before he was a star, and Alexandra Maria Lara hints at the European chic that must have appealed to Curtis. Here, again, the script lets us down, as it fails to pay enough attention to the deepening, (literally fatal) attraction Curtis felt for Annik Honore. Corbijn misses a trick here, as he had unprecedented access to Honore, who has remained publically silent on her relationship with Curtis since 1980.
Any film about Ian Curtis must deal with the tragedy at its finale. Corbijn handles this tactfully, all we see is the horror of the moment reflected in Samantha Morton's face. The familiar bass and drums from the coldly beautiful Atmosphere kick in as a rising crane shot shows us Macclesfield set against the rising Northern granite of the Pennines in the distance.
Ultimately Curtis made commitments too early in life. He married too young, and had a child too young. He, perhaps to his credit, was too honourable to handle the contradictions of being in love with two people simultaneously. And he couldn't make a choice between his epilepsy and his band. It tore him apart. The reason we remember him, though, doesn't come across in the film. He was the best lyricist of his generation. A modern poet. And though his romanticsm was skewed and strange, the English don't forget their romantic poets who die young.
7th October 2007
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