Control is a film about Ian Curtis, the singer and songwriter for the foundational band Joy Division. As most readers will know, Joy Division was one of the most influential bands in the UK around 1980 spearheading the move from punk to post-punk. Sometime during the early-morning hours of May 18th, 1980, the day the band was scheduled to leave for its first tour of the US, Curtis hung himself. The remaining members of Joy Division rechristened themselves as New Order and proved equally influential leading the way from post punk to the dance and house music that fueled the UK’s rave scene.
Joy Division did not make happy music, Ian Curtis was not a happy man, and Control is not a happy movie. Curtis is first portrayed as a melancholy and alienated teenager who impresses his future wife by quoting the poet Wordsworth at length. Moody to begin with, he becomes increasingly despondent, frightened and confused as his personal life descends into chaos and the success of Joy Division demands more of his intense, epilepsy-fueled performances than he is able to give. Like the protagonist of Joy Division’s famous “She’s lost control”, Curtis has no control of his personal and professional lives. So he ends them. It’s a bleak story whose mood is enhanced by director Anton Corbijn’s decision to shoot the film in black and white.
Control is a film about Curtis, not about Joy Division. Joy Division is going on throughout most of the film but the focus is clearly on Curtis, not the band. Part of the reason for this may be that Control is based on the book Touching From a Distance by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s widow. Understandably, she is more interested in Curtis’ personal life as a husband, lover and father of their child than she is in his professional life as the singer and songwriter of the band. Consequently, the film gives much more time to Ian’s struggle to reconcile his family life with his feelings for his lover Annik Honore than it does, for example, to the consequences of Joy Division’s increased performance schedule on Curtis’ epilepsy. The film portrays Curtis having a seizure during a performance but it does not adequately depict the frequency or intensity of these events as his performances became increasingly unhinged and his fellow band members at times did not know whether he was having a seizure on stage or not.
The emphasis on the personal as opposed to the professional mitigates the value of the film as something like a full and complete account of the factors that led Curtis to commit suicide and members of Joy Division have commented that virtually nothing in the film is portrayed as it actually happened. However, this is not really a criticism of the film as Corbijn did not set out to create a documentary. Control is more about capturing the essence of who Curtis was than about documenting the facts of his life with clinical precision and, as such, it succeeds admirably.
Sam Riley has garnered a career’s worth of critical praise for his depiction of Curtis. The praise is well deserved as he does a superb job and is utterly convincing in the role. The moment when Curtis is first shown letting loose while singing “Transmission” during an early Joy Division television performance is nothing short of electrifying. In general, the performance scenes are especially well done which is all the more remarkable when you realize that the actors performed the music themselves in the performance sequences shown in the film. Samantha Morton’s portrayal of Deborah Curtis is also very well done.
Control is a very good film that tells a very sad story. Joy Division fans should not miss it and it is recommended for people who like thoughtful, well-done film, world-class acting, or the music of the period. Just don’t expect a feel-good ending.
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