From PopMatters’ coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival 2007.
Director Anton Corbijn swiftly transports viewers into the Manchester of days past with the very first frame: in vintage music ‘zine blacks, grays, and whites, while “Drive in Saturday” by David Bowie is blasting. Ian Curtis (newcomer Sam Riley, in a soulful film debut) is bored and listening to records alone in his room. Lined up in neat little rows on his bookshelf are titles such as William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
It’s simple enough, but speaks volumes. The same can be said for most Control, a film that is reflective and introspective, much more so than the average bombastic musician biography flicks. The only time it gets loud is when we hear the music of Curtis’ formative years (some of his heroes were The Stooges, and, of course, Bowie) and then later when Joy Division begins to roar in its infancy.
Corbijn and his lead actor do a marvelous job of capturing the mundane, day-to-day existence of a working class rock star-to-be at home or working menial jobs to make ends meet—much like most talented musicians do; mainly like the legends he revered so much. Curtis seems perfectly happy to steal prescriptions from old ladies, and then go out to shows to catch a glimpse of the newest loud band down at the local pub with his pals. He turns up to school the following days without much thought about the cycle of boredom he has created for himself.
Ian meets Debbie (played with utter conviction and an almost shocking youthfulness by Samantha Morton) through one of his dandy pals and quickly, the two are bonding over reading poetry—Debbie sees the spark and genius in his eyes and falls instantly in love. And so will the audience: Corbijn uses the actor’s beautiful face, filled with angles, to surprisingly tender effect. Wiley’s Curtis is a lethal combination of sad, innocent, and disturbed, and the photogenic new actor plays all of these facets of this rock legend without going overboard or relying on a gimmick (even his epileptic fits are handled with a tremendous sense of dignity). Let’s put it this way: this isn’t the showboating, grandiose, studied imitation that we have been treated to in the past with films like Ray or Walk the Line.
Although there is a small cascade of images that unfortunately recalls American Apparel adverts (complete with skinny young lads in tight little underpants and disheveled bed-head hairdos), this film is much more self-aware and reverent to its subject. It allows the viewer to make their own judgment calls as to the behavior of Curtis, especially when he begins to sleep with Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian writer and fan. What’s intriguing about the story at this point is that the filmmaker presents Curtis as being reclusively timid and tightly-wound even before the band’s biggest breaks.
Again, with Riley, Corbijn has hit a jackpot: the pair conspires to capture the emptiness, the depression, and also the sweetness and charisma that must be present in a star for people to be drawn to them. Physically, the actor gets the moves and gestures down, and at the crucial moment where his daughter is born, the nihilism and darkness inside the man are fully exposed. Ironically, the front man for Joy Division is joyless. It is hard to translate capture this sort of silent, lonely artistic isolation without relying on too many of the usual rock star bio clichés (which are somewhat present, but not in an obtrusive way), but the dynamic duo of Corbijn and Wiley nails this one out of the park.
In her section of the story, which plays more like a British kitchen sink drama from the 1960s, Morton’s womanly Debbie (who in reality gave her blessing to this project, based on her memoirs) makes for a graceful calm center to the rock and roll shit storm brewing in Curtis’ mind. She is the kind of good soul that takes care of her man, dutifully, no matter what he does to hurt her. She plays the dedicated role beautifully, exploring the darkness that can unfortunately get spilled onto other people’s lives when they make the choice to love someone who is fundamentally damaged.
Morton, who is a two time Oscar nominee (for 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and 2003’s In America, would be wise to play the “supportive wife” angle during this year’s award’s season rather than going the leading lady route. It is a tough call as to where her performance should be placed, but if you think back to a similar “supportive wife” role like that of Jennifer Connelly’s in A Beautiful Mind (and one with much more screen time than Morton), you’ll quickly remember that Connelly took home the supporting gold that year, trouncing the competition. And she wasn’t even half as good as Morton in Control.
The actress, who has two other films at the festival (playing Mary Queen of Scots opposite Cate Blanchett’s monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like in Harmony Korine’s Mr. Lonely), is one of the most intriguing actresses of her generation; and she keeps proving it with a boldness that is missing from most other younger female actors when they choose roles. Morton takes risks.
The true star of this film, however, is the enduring music of Joy Division. As Ian says to Annik at a crucial moment in the film, some of the music might be lovely, but the band’s sound is “not meant to be beautiful”. The juxtaposition of music with pivotal moments—specifically the one where “Love Will Tear Us Apart” rears its head as Ian tells Debbie that he doesn’t think he loves her anymore and that she should sleep with other men, is more powerful than any gaudy imitation.
That delicate balance between the music and the drama will undoubtedly be wrongly categorized as typical music video posturing by critics who are unfamiliar with the band’s sound aesthetic, and also because of Corbijn’s involvement and his day job as a still photographer for musicians and other high-profile clients (he, in fact, shot a cover for one of Joy Division’s singles and had actually met Curtis). While Corbijn does capture the pure scrappiness of a rock and roll spirit ascending and crashing, and of the working class dream of gaining notoriety, he handles it not with just the poise of a professional photographer, but also as someone with a clear gift for working in the medium of film and dramatics. What could have easily ended up as a humorless exercise in hipster excess turns out warm and snappy.