Thursday, 11 October 2007

Control (dir. Anton Corbijn)


If you achieved a legendary status in British music and then killed yourself aged twenty three, you probably wouldn’t want the person with most discernable input into the film of your life to be the wife you were cheating on at the time of your suicide.

Control, photographer Anton Corbijn’s new biopic of seminal Manchester post-punk band Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis, is precisely that. It is based extensively on Ian Curtis’s widow’s book Touching From a Distance, while Curtis herself has an executive producer credit.

As a result, the focus of Control is very much on Ian Curtis, the private man, much more than Ian Curtis the singer/lyricist or Ian Curtis the member of Joy Division. There is a tension around this - Corbijn, after all, did meet and spend time with the band during its brief lifespan - but, time and time again, it is the personal and specifically the amatory path of Curtis’s life to which the film returns. It is central in a way that is at once both fascinating and frustrating.

Essentially, this is an incredibly powerful, bleak film about a depressed man having an affair and killing himself. That he was the lead singer of one of Britain’s most important bands seems almost incidental. Of course it isn’t. The band and their music do take up a significant proportion of the film. But compared to, say, 24-Hour Party People - Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film about the late Tony Wilson, which included a significant section on Joy Division - it doesn’t display anything like the same passion for the music.

What is also curious is the way in which the film treats its central character. Sam Riley’s Ian Curtis is an astonishing performance, but it is a portrayal of enigmatic, withdrawn, unarticulated suffering. The net result is that Curtis seems virtually mute. As a consequence it feels as if we are only seeing the man to whom Deborah was married and never quite “reached” (if this film is anything to go by, Touching From a Distance is an excellent title for the book). Conversely, as Deborah is shown in the film to have been quite removed from Ian’s band life - an early scene shows her arriving at a bar while Ian is having a drink with the band, and him immediately shepherding her away from them - his relationship with the band is also one of moody silences and few words. Of course other accounts of the band’s life exist, and have obviously been taken into account.

Indeed there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the episodes treated in both Control and 24-Hour Party People: Tony Wilson signing Joy Division in his own blood, or the recording of She’s Lost Control (Control’s Ben Naylor is no comparison with Andy Serkis’s Martin Hannett from 24-HPP). Most interesting are the disparities depending on which people either film is trying to make look cool - it is interesting to note, for example, that when watching the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, in 24-HPP it is Wilson stood still with a look of inspiration illuminating his face; in Control it is Curtis.

Of course a perennial problem with the biopic is the temptation to make idiotically literal-minded comparisons of the “he doesn’t look much like...” school. That said, in spite of a fine performance, Sam Riley does occasionally seem like an odd choice to play Curtis. There is a passing physical similarity, but Curtis’s haunted pale blue eyes are replaced by Riley’s pair of smouldering Byronic near-black ones. Curtis’s stiff-limbed, spastic, epilepsy-inspired dances - which are still uncomfortable to watch even now - become something altogether more fluid in Riley’s hands, at times even oddly Bez-like.

The rest of the band vary: Harry Treadaway’s Stephen Morris is introverted and slightly pained; James Anthony Pearson fails to capture the young Bernard Sumner’s floppy-fringed dash - playing his guitar like someone who really needs to watch his fingers, keeping it strapped higher than any self-respecting guitarist ever would. On the other hand, Joe Anderson should have earned himself a lifelong place on Peter Hook’s Christmas card list bringing a spectacularly sexy, smouldering presence, piercing eyes and chiselled jawline to Hooky’s professional grumpy Manc persona. Oddly Anderson’s passing resemblance to Billy Boyd, coupled with Pearson’s not-dissimilarity to Dominic Monaghan, does lend the film version of the band a fleeting similarity to a bunch of hobbits. Samantha Morton turns in a characteristically committed, emotionally raw and honest performance as Curtis’s abandoned wife, making her at once wholly sympathetic, but also credibly flawed. It is tempting to describe the portrayal of Curtis’s Belgian lover Annik (Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara) as precisely the image that a betrayed wife has of her husband’s lover - she is beautiful, but thinly sketched - never fully allowed her own drive or impulses. She does, however, unwittingly deliver the film’s one knock-out gag.

The real star of the show, however, is Anton Corbijn’s cinematographer Martin Ruhe. Every frame looks like it could have just won a photography competition. The composition, the use of light, the observation of texture, is absolutely flawless. There are points where the artfulness takes over from any narrative drive and a beautifully lit shot of Sam Riley’s tear-stained cheek communicates more about Curtis’s isolation than any amount of voice-over ever could. Ranged against this, there are slight irritations: some of the dialogue clangs pretty badly; Love Will Tear Us Apart turns up as incidental music at exactly the point you expect it to, while Atmosphere’s appearance is perhaps even more predictable.

Stylistically, as Peter Bradshaw notes in his laudatory Guardian review last week, Control is almost an homage to Fifties kitchen sink British cinema and the French nouvelle vague. It certainly owes more to A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar than anything as crass as Oliver Stone’s The Doors, et al. It doesn’t ever quite manage to make the music hit you in the gut as hard as it might - although there are moments of spine-tingling beauty. What it offers instead is a bleak, harrowing and desperately sad story about someone who, for reasons known only to himself, decided not to make it past 23.
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Here's the She's Lost Control section from the film Control (with French subtitles), with the band recording in the studio cutting into a live performance. The dialogue at the end is between Tony Wilson and Deborah Curtis:



And here's pretty much the same bit as envisaged by Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. If nothing else, the juxtapostion points up quite how wildly the two film's priorities differ - that said, searching these clips after the cinema last night, it was quite jarring to see anything like broad comedy after seeing Control:



And the real thing (imperfect sound quality):



OK, I’ve linked to this recording of Shadowplay before - but this YouTube clip has the original (unbelievably louche) Tony Wilson introduction, which is reproduced verbatim in the film - albeit before the (film) band go on to play Transmission.

6 comments:

Ian Shuttleworth said...

God, in the opening shot of that movie sequence, Sam Riley looks amazingly like, er, Stephen Morris.

And a pedantic point, but a mildly significant one: Corbijn directed the film but, amazingly, is not the cinematographer on it. No doubt he chose Martin Ruhe because of a certain visual simpatico, but the photography is Ruhe's.

Now, I really must clear the time to get to see it. I remember watching that edition of "Something Else" on BBC2 when it was first broadcast and being more shocked than I'd ever been at a rock performance. Really, even Richey Edwards' "4 REAL" moment can't compete with Curtis going into what Hooky calls the dead-fly dance.

Andrew Haydon said...

"Sam Riley looks amazingly like, er, Stephen Morris."

I noticed that to. Elsewhere he is a perfect three-way cross between Morris, Pete Doherty and Ed Lake. Most curious.

I'm glad you said that about the "dead-fly dance". It really is something else, and Riley doesn't quite nail the awkwardness. I forget where I read it but someone elsewhere likened it to Lucky's dance in Godot ("the net"?).

Hmm, might have to go and put that in now I've remembered it - just to make the review that little bit more wanky :-)

Ian Shuttleworth said...

It's a VERY good piece of added-value wankery :-)

Lake said...

That sounds like a HOT three-way cross. Hope it's got my ears.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Right, having seen it this afternoon (before going to the press night of Glengarry Glen Ross - what a combination - and immediately after seeing my shrink - what another), here are some more things:

"Curtis herself has an executive producer credit" - co-producer, but blah blah. And so does Tony Wilson. There is, in films, a notoriously long and tortuous route between input and output. Yes, it's a more Deborah-oriented view than a fan of the music might expect or perhaps prefer, but it's not her agenda. There is a balance struck: it's noticeable, for instance, that the band, Wilson and Rob Gretton (how could you not have mentioned Toby Kebbell's performance as the band's Manc-chancer manager?) were much warmer and more at ease with Annik than with Deborah, so there's no Yokofication going on there: indeed, if anything, Deborah is both Yoko and Cynthia Lennon, so to speak - both the mousewife and the one who was pulling against the band.

"Curtis seems virtually mute": and so much desperation set in that they had to whack in an inner-thoughts voiceover around half an hour before the end. The occasional voiceover from his lyrics, fair enough, but I winced at that soliloquy.

"Curtis’s haunted pale blue eyes are replaced by Riley’s pair of smouldering Byronic near-black ones": yes, he looks most like Curtis when his eyes are closed - individual moments such as, in performance, poised before a blow-up of the Unknown Pleasures image, or resting his confused head against a window.

In fact, I'll tell you who he most reminds me of, especially in the poster image: Adrian Bower, recently John Simm's sidekick onstage in Elling and best known as the P.E. master in Teachers. A likeness not helped by the fact that - again, apart from occasions (specifically, during the rendition of "Dead Souls") - Riley's version of the "dead fly" dance makes him look like a startled power-walker. Yes, Curtis sometimes just twitched a bit, and yes, when you first saw it you laughed, for about two and a half seconds until it caught in your throat as you realised he meant it. (I don't understand how people like Hooky can say they didn't realise Curtis meant the lyrics - surely nobody who'd seen the dance could believe the lyrics weren't meant.)

"James Anthony Pearson fails to capture the young Bernard Sumner’s floppy-fringed dash - playing his guitar like someone who really needs to watch his fingers, keeping it strapped higher than any self-respecting guitarist ever would": well, Barney did/does - I mean, not Nick Heyward high, but north of the usual.

"The real star of the show, however, is Anton Corbijn’s cinematographer Martin Ruhe": ah, a quiet emendation as been made here :-) Something about Ruhe's visual sense struck me as characteristically German... in fact, like the look of German new-wave movies (not the French ones, Bradshaw!) of the 1960s and '70s such as Werner Herzog's Stroszek which Curtis is shown watching the night before he topped himself. Ruhe's compositions look more like those of Robby Müller, oft-times cinematographer for Wim Wenders (on everything from Alice In The Cities to Paris, Texas).

Corbijn - surely one of the finest portrait photographers of the past 30 or 40 years - knows exactly how to frame a picture so as to use the limitations of the photographic dimensions: Ruhe knows likewise, how to use the horizontal expanse of wide-screen cinema, whether it's Curtis reunited with Annik on a bare continental North Sea coast or him just standing in the corner of a room, almost incidental to a domestic vista running from the door jamb to a pair of nondescript curtain that take up nearly half the screen.

"Atmosphere’s appearance is perhaps even more predictable": I have to admit, I did miss the dwarfs in the dunes from Corbijn's video for it (his first), which managed to be at once utterly absurd and furtively, double-bluffily poignant. But, well, it is a perfect song for elegy sequences. I know I'm gonna leave instructions for it to be played when I go.

Little fanboy things: as soon as Curtis's GP was heard to have a German accent I thought, right, he's been cast for a reason, who is he? Turns out he's Herbert Grönemeyer, who as well as acting in movies such as Das Boot is a singer responsible (according to Wikipedia) for the best-selling ever German-language music album. Despite that, he's hip enough to be prestige/niche casting. Like John Cooper Clarke making a brief appearance as himself. (And I laughed out loud during the final credits when I saw "Titles Consultant: Peter Saville".)

I don't get out to the pictures much these days, but by God I'm glad I saw this one on a big screen, notwithstanding the morons sat behind me. And it's reminded me that I really want one of those clothes airers that you hoist overhead with pulleys.

Anonymous said...

How did anyone know Ian was watching the Herzog movie that night if he was alone in the house and Deborah wasn't there? Guess I have to read the book to find out where she went, but I don't believe those final hours went down exactly like that. He hangs himself in the kitchen? Very telling. My take? He finally decided to grow a pair and tell her he was done he wanted a divorce and she told him no. He wanted her to let him go and she told him quite coldly that it could never be. She had tolerated him having the girlfriend who he quite possibly had fallen in love with but out of maybe a sense of what I call "catholic guilt" he was trying to make something work out her guilting him. She was counting on him to come back out of guilt, not love. It's a cliched story, and not the first of stories where girl meets boy musician, girl gets knocked up, girl guilts boy, and realizes he doesn't really love her anymore but she's an ordinary girl who figures she won't find better. He's her first love, maybe she is his, but he's outgrown her. She knows it. But. So they are miserable together and apart, and yet he doesn't let the other woman go.

So I don't quite buy the ending she's supposedly portrayed in the movie, that he tells her get out, she leaves, knowing full well his history of suicidal attempts, and he tells her "in the morning he'll be gone." I think he felt at that point that he was trapped.

As far as taking things superficially, whether this actor in the 2007 version "looks" like the other, that's just superficial b.s. Look at the performance fresh, with a fresh eye, and not with a kid's eye from 1980.

Curtis can't be duplicated, but I think Sam did a brave and incredible performance, he had big shoes to fill and he did so admirably. Bravo!