Control (2007): Corbijn’s Biopic of Legendary British Rocker Ian Curtis

Cannes Film Fest 2007–A highlight of the Cannes Film Fest’s sidebar “Directors Fortnight,” Anton Corbijn’s Control is a bizarre yet mesmerizing music biopic of the legendary British rocker Ian Curtis of the Joy Division band.

Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay, adapted from “Touching from the Distance,” the book by Deborah Curtis (also credited as a co-producer) about her husband’s life and death, has some problems.

However, what’s most impressive about this somber movie is the way it was shot, in a high-contrast monochrome that captures vividly, almost perversely the grim mood of Curtis’ life.

Let me start, for a change, with the actors. Sam Riley plays Ian Curtis with vivid force, recreating the singer’s performance style with all its qualities and mannerisms. Riley was cast as Mark E. Smith in Michael Winterbottom’s musical extravaganza, “The 24-Hour Party People,” also shown in Cannes. The endlessly gifted and versatile Samantha Morton also renders an intelligent performance as Curtis’s wife Debbie, whom he married when they were in their teens. Equally impressive is Toby Kebbell, as Rob Gretton, Curtis’ sly manager.

In this conception, Curtis comes across not so much as a self-destructive artist, but as a romantic who worshipped two women–equally. Like other geniuses, Curtis was a man of contradictions, at once needing and fearing the loss of control. Channeling his anxieties and phobias into music, he felt a strong need to escape from his body’s physical limitations. To his credit, Corbijn does not dwell too much on Curtis’ epilepsy, and refrains from the usual stereotypes, though he recreates one such full outburst on stage.

Chronologically, the tale begins in 1973, when Curtis was a teenager, and ends with his suicide in 1980, just before a U.S. tour that was going to do marvels for him. From his early years, the teenager Curtis showed penchant for philosophizing-like what’s the purpose and meaning of his existence.

The young Curtis lived in the flats of Macclesfield. Socializing with David Bowie, he did drugs, and experimented with applying eyeliner, while wearing his sister’s jackets. Corbijn reconstructs with gentle yet smart touch Curtis’ job in the unemployment benefit office. However, motivated to write poetry and lyrics, Curtis isolated himself from his family and the outside world.

Apparently, Curtis immediately took to the gentle Debbie (Morton), and in short order, their passion turns to matrimony. As a couple, they do all kinds of things together, like attending a Sex Pistols concert, running around with friends, and so on.

Later on, Curtis becomes the lead vocalist of an ironically singerless band, Joy Division. “We’d be a lot less shit if we could find a singer who could actually sing.” Ironically, Curtis can’t play the guitar, but he has the soul of a singer and the expected appealing yet bizarre look to go along with it. Soon, Joy Division is playing local gigs, and later begins to gain national and even international recognition.

From that point on, the story becomes more conventional, following the rise and fall of a pop star, though Corbijn never neglects Debbie’s part as the long-suffering wife, the woman left behind. Tensions between the spouses follow, and after arguments and splits, Curtis begins to court Annik Honor (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian lover.

Corbijn conveys the post punk era as a pop culture phenom made to order for misplaced and misfit individuals like Curtis. The 1970s were times when creative (and not so creative) people could, and were encouraged to, form their own idiosyncratic bands–to varying degrees of popularity and success.

A visually striking portrait of the artist as an anguished soul, “Control” is a heartfelt film, the first feature from Anton Corbijn, who has done some acclaimed rock-and-roll photography and music videos. After such an impressive debut, I am looking forward to his next film project.

In Cannes, some critics compared “Control” to the black-and-white realism of 1960s British films, such as Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” “A Taste of Honey,” and “This Sporting Life.” And, indeed, Curtis working-class existence fits well into that era’s mood and look.

The opening and closing reels are accompanied with a distancing voiceover, but the rest of the tale is related more directly, unfolding as brief snapshots of a tormented life. Quite remarkably, Riley manages to fashion these disparate elements into a dramatic portrait that’s coherent and engaging.

As noted, “Control” contains some overlapping events with Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People,” the biopic of Manchester music entrepreneur Tony Wilson, here played by Craig Parkinson (and played by Steve Coogan in Winterbottom’s film).

The film’s dominant tone is sad and downbeat, in congruency with its subject’s life, his ill-fated marriage to Deborah Curtis, epilepsy, depression, and eventual suicide. Corbijn presents working-class life in Northern England in various shades of grays, rather than in simple black-and-white.

Despite the grim and somber tone, there are some funny moments that also ring true. When Curtis is getting medical advice about how to handle his condition, “You should be getting plenty of early nights, and steering away from alcohol,” he says in disbelief, “Sure,” and we know exactly what he means.

When will Samnatha Morton get the critical recognition she greatly deserves I don’t think she has ever given the same performance twice. Here, she excels as the gentle young girl who rallies behind her hubby and provides care and love when he’s diagnosed with epilepsy. Toby Kebbell stands out as manager Rob Gretton, who provides comic relief but also much needed business advice. A ballsy charmer, he can make things happen. One of Gretton’s speeches to Curtis provides a highlight: “Chin up. It could be much worse. Could be the lead singer in The Fall.”

Though some of the Joy Division songs were rerecorded by the actors who play the band members, the overall quality of the music and sound is good.

Cast

Ian Curtis – Sam Riley
Debbie Curtis – Samantha Morton
Tony Wilson – Craig Parkinson
Annik Honore – Alexandra Maria Lara
Hooky – Joe Anderson
Bernard Summer – James Anthony Pearson
Rob Gretton – Toby Kebbell
Steve Morris – Harry Treadway
Terry – Andrew Sheridan
Twinny – Robert Shelly

Credits

Running time: 120 Minutes.

A Becker Intl (Australia) presentation of a Northsee Ltd (U.K.) production, in association with EM Media (U.K.)/IFF, CINV, 3 Dogs and a Pony (Japan)/Warner Music (U.K.).
Produced by Orian Williams, Anton Corbijn, Todd Eckert.
Executive producers, Iain Canning, Akira Ishii, Korda Marshall, Lizzie Francke.
Co-producers, Peter Heslop, Deborah Curtis, Tony Wilson.
Directed by Anton Corbijn.
Screenplay, Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book “Touching From the Distance” by Deborah Curtis.
Camera: Martin Ruhe.
Editor: Andrew Hulme.
Music: New Order.
Production designer: Chris Richmond.
Sound: Peter Baldock.