Film Review #167: Control
Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandria Maria Lara
Midway through the film Control, the Belgian fanzine reporter Annik Honoré (Alexandria Maria Lara) says to Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), “Tell me about your wife.”
They are about to embark on the steamy affair in which every contradiction in Curtis’ life unendurably converges. Curtis, original lead singer and lyricist for the British post-punk band Joy Division, pauses for a beat and says carefully of his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton), “She’s at home in Macclesfield. I’ve been trying to escape from there my whole life.”
Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film about Curtis, which released here on DVD in early June, covers the seven years between 1973, when Curtis was still is school and romancing Deborah, then his best friend’s girl, until his suicide by hanging in May 1980 at age 23, literally on the eve of Joy Division’s planned departure for a two-week concert tour in the US. A genuinely reticent young man who scribbled notebooks full of poetry and suffered epileptic seizures – at least one on-stage - Curtis stoked a band sound that has inspired the likes of U2, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, The Cure, and Interpol.
Though called “the best English film of 2007,” Control seems to begin inauspiciously. In a long, bleak, black-and-white shot, Curtis slouches along the edge of a fenced playground in a housing project, carrying a paper bag and ignoring the calls of some kids to throw their soccer ball back over the fence. I confess I looked at my watch as this scene rolled on.
But Control does pick up, and it turns out that Corbijn knows what he’s doing in that first scene, which by depicting such suffocation risks alienating viewers early on but fully informs Curtis’ later remark about a lifetime of seeking escape. This is officially Corbijn’s first feature film, but the Dutch-born photographer’s been making music videos since the mid-80s – Palm Pictures released an anthology DVD in 2005 – and he knows the lay of the land.
As for that first scene, Corbijn says he likes the 70s as an era for film precisely for its slower pace, for the opportunity to take the time to look at things. In Curtis’ early surroundings, Corbijn recreates the “great shock” of northern England’s poverty – “very bleak, very gray” – that he himself was unprepared for after growing up in Holland’s social safety net. And Corbijn chose to make a black-and-white movie because “the entire collective memory of Joy Division is black-and-white” – their album covers, their music videos and the photography by which their public knew them – a fact about which Corbijn speaks with such first-hand authority because in a very short time he directly created so much of that visual record.
Corbijn first heard Joy Division’s music at home in the Netherlands in 1979 and by October of the same year moved to London. Within two weeks he was photographing the rising band. Some of the most iconic images we have of Joy Division – and Curtis particularly – are Corbijn’s. In fact, some of the most iconic images we have of a vast number of musicians and actors over the past three decades are Corbijn’s. One pleasure in watching films like Goya’s Ghost (2006) or the 2003 Vermeer biopic, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, is their painterly look, in each case echoing how that artist saw his world. Corbijn’s film delivers recognition with a similar punch in recapping his own work as much as Curtis’ music. It doesn’t hurt that both Curtis’ widow and Annik Honoré assisted Corbijn – the script is based on Deborah Curtis’ memoir– or that Corbijn could film in the same flat where Curtis lived and even follow Sam Riley through the same streets – eerily frozen in time – to Curtis’ old day job as an employment counselor.
We’ll see lots more of Riley – a band singer multiply-honored for his first film – and Alexandria Maria Lara too, a Romanian from Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (reviewed here recently). But Samantha Morton is utterly convincing, first as a character half her own age when the film starts, then as the tense young woman she becomes. Morton’s short scene before discovering Curtis’ body – almost devoid of dialogue – is worth the ticket.
At Emerald City Video, Jason says they can’t keep Control on the shelf. And Joy Division’s saga steams on: Sunday’s Parade magazine reported that someone has just stolen Ian Curtis’ headstone from the Macclesfield graveyard.
This review appeared in the 7/17/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Netflix also has Corbijn’s 2005 music video anthology plus his Depeche Mode videos.