To many music fans, Joy Division is a precious thing. The late '70s band only released two full-fledged records before lead singer Ian Curtis took his own life in 1980. These discs, and the various bits and bobs that orbited them, are fragile masterpieces. Curtis and his bandmates, who went on to form New Order, mapped prickly, desolate landscapes. Vibrating with the thrum of Peter Hook's inimitable bass lines, Curtis unleashed stark, poetic rants, delivered with his bottom-heavy voice, deep tones that sagged under the heaviness of his emotion. As the band progressed, pulling in synthesizers and other instruments to add icy layers to their dark melodies, the music became a thing of fractured beauty. Listen to the tinkling chimes on a song like "Atmosphere," as Ian Curtis begs not to be left alone, and just try to ward off the chill. Are you hugging yourself to stay warm, or as reassurance that you're still alive?
With the weight of this legacy to bear, making a film of Ian Curtis' life is no simple task. If anyone is suited to try to lift the load, however, it is Anton Corbijn. A rock photographer and video director of no small merit, Corbijn's penchant for grainy black-and-white film stock and iconic, declarative images makes him well suited to bring visual life to Joy Division's music. Control is his directorial debut, and it is of sufficient merit that the legions of Ian devotees should walk away relatively pleased; on the other hand, I'm not sure how it will play to the uninitiated. Control may be a movie for fans only.
A quick history lesson comprises the first half of the film. Ian Curtis, played with doe-eyed sincerity by a remarkable Sam Riley, is a bored youth coming of age in the early 1970s in Manchester, an industrial town in Northern England. Obsessed with David Bowie and Roxy Music, he practices in front of the mirror for the day he too will be a superstar. Things come together for him at a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, when he is asked to join a band called Warsaw. Within months, they have changed their name to Joy Division and have signed to Factory Records, the nascent label of TV personality Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson). For the band, things only go up, up, and then up some more.
Not so for Ian personally. Having married his wife Deborah (Samantha Morton) at a young age, he realizes that he wasn't fully prepared for the decisions he has made. When he meets an alluring Belgian fanzine writer (Alexandra Maria Lara), he starts up a long-term affair with her, a fact he can't keep from Deborah forever. He also discovers he has epilepsy. Ironically, his former job was helping people with special needs, including epileptics, find employment. While this causes Ian no end of complications, the epilepsy and the onstage fits it brings on only add to his mystique. The poetic personage Ian Curtis portrays in his lyrics is an enigma, one his acolytes have wanted to decipher for quite a long time, only to discover that the puzzle of the man behind the lyrics is proving even more difficult than the oblique images he describes.
The screenplay for Control was written by Matt Greenhalgh, who has previously written primarily for British television. It's adapted from Deborah Curtis' book about her life with Ian. Her memoir was called Touching from a Distance, an allusion to a Joy Division lyric, and I'm afraid Anton Corbijn took this line a little too literally. Most of Control seems a step or two removed from its subject. The majority of what we see of Ian's day-to-day life is material we could piece together from magazine interviews and anecdotal evidence, and Ian himself appears to be slightly out of reach.
This decision is fine in its way. Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe's stark black-and-white photography has the observational appeal of British kitchen sink as well as evoking Michelangelo Antonioni's early '60s studies in ennui and disaffection. Surprisingly, Corbijn reins in his usual eye for juxtaposition, only indulging his abstract nature in the final, gorgeous shot of the film. It's a sign of a director quelling his own impulses in service to the story. What we are experiencing in Control is Ian's world, with most everyone around him being reduced to secondary players in a drama they don't understand or even realize is happening. (Poor New Order. They were assigned similar fates in 24 Hour Party People.) If the intention is to show Ian Curtis as a moody jerk who plays every side to his advantage, then mission accomplished. I doubt it's inaccurate, in any case.
The problem is, this kind of portrait doesn't really serve to show us why Ian Curtis was so compelling, why the people around him got so entangled in his charismatic web. Corbijn doesn't really let us in until the third act. After Curtis' first suicide attempt, Corbijn opens up the voiceover narration to include diaries and letters Ian Curtis wrote, when up until then it had mainly been his poetry. At last, we are finally made privy to the fears and the insecurities that have been haunting the singer. We understand how lonely he feels, how frightened he is of his illness and his fame. Unfortunately for Control, it may be a little too late. It's a bitter irony that it's in this portion of the film that Control starts to drag. With the inescapable destination looming on the horizon, the journey suddenly starts to feel overly drawn out.
It's quite possible that all of my misgivings could have been Corbijn's intent. By placing Ian Curtis in a kind of quarantine for the early part of the picture, he expected to make the revelation of his internal solitude all the more devastating. It's a risky move, and it only works about halfway. For as much as I liked Control, it's impossible not to think it could have been so much more. Ian Curtis' main theme was trying to give expression to the unknowable. It's like he wrote in "Isolation": "But if you could just see the beauty, these things I could never describe." What I was looking to get from Control was the man beyond the words, the one who isn't readily available in the music. To borrow and alter a cliché, Anton Corbijn could have shot the truth or he could have shot the legend. When he made Control, he shot the legend.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.