Joy Division biopic is almost flawless to a fault
by Mike Gibson
First-time director Anton Corbijnâ’s Control is one of those films that, in spite of strong performances, sharp scripting, and general technical excellence, still leaves us with the feeling that some vital element has been lost or left by the wayside; itâ’s a movie thatâ’s missing a piece of its soul.
Even so, thereâ’s much to recommend it, especially for those endeared to the music that came out of Great Britain in the wake of the Sex Pistols, an era when punk rock was making mutant changes in the DNA of rock â’nâ’ roll. Part biopic and part rock â’nâ’ roll tragedy, Control unfolds the final six years of the life of Ian Curtisâ"the six-year-period during which the Manchester-born son of a working-class family found fame as the lead singer of seminal post-punk outfit Joy Division and then a dubious immortality when he hanged himself in his own living room at the age of 23.
The filmâ’s great epiphany is the breakout showing of little-known Sam Riley as Ian Curtis. Rileyâ’s performance traces Curtisâ’ troubled evolution from a hollow-eyed teenage boy with effortless charisma and a serious Bowie jones to a sick, troubled young man thrust into a world of fast living, fame, and adult responsibility for which he was tragically ill-prepared. By turns cocksure, confused, and outright despairing, Rileyâ’s Curtis is the magnetic center of our attention, even surrounded by a plethora of other fine performances. Former front man for a couple of little-known Brit-rock outfits, Riley also does his own singing in the live performance sequences; though his voice differs somewhat from that of the real Curtis, his vocals are powerful nonetheless, and his implosive, awkwardly potent stage presence is so affecting as to draw favorable comparisons to Curtis himself.
Also worthy of special note is the performance of Samantha Mortonâ"perhaps the best-known member of the castâ"as Deborah Curtis, Ian Curtisâ’ long-suffering wife, the girlfriend of a teenage pal whom 18-year-old Ian charms, woos, and weds in a rash fit of need, puppy love, and teen lust. Mortonâ’s doe-eyed Deborah is sweet, shy, and painfully eager to pleaseâ"a combination which leaves her particularly vulnerable to Curtisâ’ roguish rock-boy charms. Morton never misses a note, even to the end, when the jilted Deborah finally tires of her husbandâ’s unfaithfulness and perpetual absence and begins to tap heretofore unknown reserves of inner strength.
Shot in sodden black and whiteâ"a decision that shrewdly complements the pervasive gloom of the storyline, not to mention the slow-burn Goth-punk hybrid of Joy Divisionâ’s musicâ"Control unravels in vignettes. We see, almost chapter by chapter, Curtisâ’ winning and wedding of Deborah; his overtures to a troika of drinking pals, young musicians looking for someone to sing for their fledgling punk-rock outfit; the onset of Curtisâ’ near-crippling epilepsy; the rise of Joy Division; Curtis succumbing to the pressures and temptations of the rock nâ’ roll lifestyle, most especially in the form of a lovely Belgian groupie named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara).
Corbijn is well-established as a director of music videos, and the movieâ’s serial character is perhaps a testament to his work in a medium dominated by bite-size, fast-cut imagery. And while the end result is almost hyper-lucid and technically proficient, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
In a film filled with affecting moments, Curtisâ’ story somehow lacks a certain emotional resonance. Our pity for Deborah, our loathing of Curtisâ’ less admirable behaviors, our sympathy for his ever-worsening physical conditionâ"itâ’s as if these feelings are consistently lost and rediscovered, dissipated at the end of each vignette.
Curtisâ’ now-adult daughter Natalieâ"whose birth is depicted in the movie, and who was still an infant when he diedâ"has endorsed the film, but she suggests that it misses the mark in not paying more heed to the emotional problems that plagued her father even apart from his external circumstance. Her observation is telling; though we see Curtis as troubledâ"tired, ill, and emotionally torn between family and mistressâ"we feel as if a piece of the puzzle is missing. Curtisâ’ deteriorating mental state, his destructive behavior, his ultimate suicideâ"all of these things bode undercurrents of self-loathing and clinical depression only hinted at in the movie.
Corbijnâ’s debut is a strong one, to be sure, and Riley is an actor to be watched. In the final analysis, though, Control is perhaps marked by a little too much of the sameâ"itâ’s a tad too regimented, too enunciated in its presentation. Corbijn would have done better to leave just a trace of bloodâ"or at least gritâ"on the movieâ’s otherwise pristine black-and-white frames.
Movie Guru Rating:
Shoot the Moon
Whenever someone starts going on about how much they love Kramer vs. Kramer, I sometimes find myself wanting to slap them with a copy of Alan Parkerâ’s 1982 Shoot the Moon. Thanks to this new DVD issue, now I can. While Kramer won Oscars and captured moviegoersâ’ imaginations, Parkerâ’s still-undersung film, though far from perfect, outshines it in every way.
The clichÃ© would be to start by observing that George and Faith Dunlap (Albert Finney and Diane Keaton) have the perfect life, except that the very first scene finds successful author George weeping. Heâ’s been seeing another woman (Karen Allen) and soon moves out of his familyâ’s idyllic Marin County spread, leaving Faith and their gaggle of four daughters behind. Finney and Keaton constitute a lot of acting firepower on one screen, and when itâ’s let fly, the resulting explosions almost strain credulity. But Shoot the Moon is largely devoted to quiet, patient, finely observed scenes that focus less on what drives George and Faith apart than what keeps them bound together. Their ties twist and change with each passing reel as George tries to maintain his relationship with his daughters, as the sparring spouses face the death of Faithâ’s beloved father, and as George tries to come to terms with the idea of a hunky contractor (Peter Weller) altering the home he rebuilt and bedding the woman he married.
When it comes to firepower, nobody outguns Keatonâ’s sad, glittering eyes, but Shoot the Moon is really Finneyâ’s film. With help from middlebrow auteur Parker (playing over his head here), he makes it clear that George loves Faith and that George canâ’t stay with Faith and that George may never be able to accept that fact. As the dangling ending underlines, a broken family may still be a family, but itâ’s broken nonetheless. â" Lee Gardner
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