The tall, slender, sensitive Mancunian teenager quoting Wordsworth to win his equally youthful lady love. The child groom and young father who lands a steady job at the height of the British dole. The unlikely frontman who created New Wave anthems. The troubled artist who cracks under the pressures of newfound fame, domestic unrest and debilitating illness. The legacy of the young man’s loss 27 years ago that continues to mystify and sadden his fans.
This, kids, is the portrait of Ian Curtis we are to come to view in Control, directed by Anton Corbijn. From the simple opening credits where the film’s title is spelled out in simple, white, utilitarian script over a black background, flickering on and off, like a candle about to go out, Corbijn gets Curtis. The style of the Dutch photographer, best known for his moody monochrome images of bands like Depeche Mode, and U2, is a perfect match for this gray tale. Where Corbijn succeeds is in bringing depth and colour to a life that could’ve been summed up as another tragic rock cliché.
Filmed in black and white, one feels as if one is looking at Curtis’s life through a series of photographs. We meet Ian as a schoolboy, posing in the mirror to the beat of his newly purchased David Bowie LP. His awkward steps toward first love are touching. His strong middle class sense of morality and responsibility comes into play when he asks his first love, Debbie, to marry him while both are still teens. Unlike many of his peers, Ian quickly lands work finding employment for the disabled and sets up a little home for himself and his new bride. With apparent domestic bliss laid out before the young couple, Ian’s involvement in a bar band seems unlikely. But intrigued by the doings of pub pals, Sumner, Hook, and Morris, Ian joins their band, now called Warsaw, as their lead singer and lyricist. You can’t help feeling that Ian’s involvement was meant as more of a hobby, a creative outlet for the poet; certainly, Ian’s wife Debbie is under this impression. Her bewilderment as the band’s popularity grows at an alarming rate is a recurring note of dissonance throughout the film. She turns up at gigs dowdy in her maxi dress, pregnant belly in full bloom, absolutely clueless about the lure of groupies to her man, and why she wouldn’t be welcome backstage.
The pub band, now entitled Joy Division, record an EP which leads them to their first television appearance on Manchester music mogul Tony Wilson’s show. It is here that Debbie, watching her husband on their set at home first feels real unease; the mesmerising man crooning on the telly bears no resemblance to the reliable husband she thought she knew so well. The band’s successful appearance leads to a contract with Wilson’s Factory records (- signed in Wilson’s blood) and their first tour. Still, Ian holds down the family front and initially keeps his steady job, despite the success that is surely barking at his heels. The cracks in Ian’s homey placidity begin once his daughter is born, his face registering the sudden shock that maybe he wasn’t as ready for fatherhood as he reckoned when he suggested that he and Debbie start their family. Add to that the discovery that Ian has epilepsy. Witnessing his awful, uncontrollable fits and the array of medications Ian consumes in the attempt to arrest the seizures; we further understand how overwhelmed and out of control his own life must have seemed. On another away gig, Ian meets Belgian fan Annick Honore, and the two very quickly form an attraction. Ian’s relationship with Annick proceeds first on an intellectual level before Ian shunts aside those pesky marriage vows and goes the whole hog. Ian relates to Annick that his marriage to Debbie was a mistake, with Annick sympathising over how very young he was. However, once back home Ian is welcomed with loving arms by Debbie every time, astonishingly, even after he treats her callously and eventually confesses his affair to her. Ian’s pressures mount as his seizures still afflict him, despite a chemist’s load of medications, becoming serious enough to cause him to miss the band’s gigs at a critical juncture when Joy Divison is just about to make their debut tour of the US. Guilt-stricken in every direction at what should have been the happiest time of his life; Ian is torn between the two women he loves, shamed at letting down his bandmates and desperate to be a good father to the daughter he hardly sees. His depression is multiplied by his desperate medical situation. The world finally becomes too much for the fragile soul and Ian ends it all by hanging himself in the kitchen of the home he bought for Debbie.
Sam Riley delivers one of the performances of the year as Ian Curtis, made even more remarkable for the fact that this is his first lead in a feature. I won’t quantify his achievement by regarding him as merely a gifted mimic, but his live performances as Ian are spot on; the relentless, wooden, jerky dancing, dreamy eyes at half mast, the gigs seem to take much out of the already depleted, ill young man. Riley captures the heart of a sensitive, working class boy overwhelmed by circumstance, some wonderful, some terrible. His saucer eyes let us into Ian’s mounting pain, yet this Ian is no one-note sad sack; he’s shy, charming and funny, much more the nice feller down the pub than rock showman.
The only name in the cast is Samantha Morton, who plays Debbie Curtis. It’s a credit to her great power as an actress that she takes a thankless role and makes much more of it than there is. Her Debbie is adorable as a round and happy teenager, thrilled to have found her life’s love early and only too content to settle down. She seems raised to be the perfect hausfrau, which is disturbing to see in such a young girl, but in Morton’s portrayal, her devotion to her Ian shines through.
Sadly, my main complaint about the film is the shallow rendering of both Debbie and Annick (Alexandra Maria Lara). The triangle involving both women is poised as the major reason why Ian killed himself, yet neither character is fleshed out sufficiently to make you believe that, or make you understand why someone would tie themselves in such knots in attachment to them both. At one point I questioned Debbie’s mental acuity after Ian comes home to Debbie after admitting he’s cheating on her. Debbie jumps up from her couch yelling, “You’re home!”, and then goes running off to make him a cup of tea. Her utter obliviousness about her husband and their situation throughout the film are simply too hollow to be other than bad writing. More puzzling when considered that the main point of research noted for the film was Debbie Curtis’ autobiography of her life with Ian. As to Annick, outside of being a cute little chippy, there isn’t much to make you see the great meeting of minds and hearts that made her the love of Ian’s life.
Better set are the characters in the Joy Division satellite. Much of the humour in the film is derived from fast talking manager, Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) and pugnacious Hookey – bassist Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), as well as some fun at Tony Wilson’s (Craig Parkinson) expense. There’s not a bad note in any of the performances, and bravo to the actors for doing wonderful work playing the Joy Division songs themselves.
All said, Control is an impressive feat. As if captured in one of his photographs, Anton Corbijn has given us the grainy portrait of a boy; one who laughed and experienced pain, one who loved and was loved by many, yet couldn’t overcome the ravages of illness and depression. The boy happened to be in one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century, but Corbijn never lets us lose sight of the soul of that boy, and his story will break your heart.
~ Mighty Ganesha
Oct 1st 2007
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