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 Sam Riley’s Ian Curtis is an astonishing performance, but it is a portrayal of enigmatic, withdrawn, unarticulated suffering.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.
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.