First-time director Anton Corbijn’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; it’s a movie that’s missing a piece of its soul.
Even so, there’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 ’n’ roll. Part biopic and part rock ’n’ roll tragedy, Control unfolds the final six years of the life of Ian Curtis—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 film’s great epiphany is the breakout showing of little-known Sam Riley as Ian Curtis. Riley’s performance traces Curtis’ 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, Riley’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 Morton—perhaps the best-known member of the cast—as Deborah Curtis, Ian Curtis’ 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. Morton’s doe-eyed Deborah is sweet, shy, and painfully eager to please—a combination which leaves her particularly vulnerable to Curtis’ roguish rock-boy charms. Morton never misses a note, even to the end, when the jilted Deborah finally tires of her husband’s unfaithfulness and perpetual absence and begins to tap heretofore unknown reserves of inner strength.
Shot in sodden black and white—a decision that shrewdly complements the pervasive gloom of the storyline, not to mention the slow-burn Goth-punk hybrid of Joy Division’s music—Control unravels in vignettes. We see, almost chapter by chapter, Curtis’ 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 Curtis’ near-crippling epilepsy; the rise of Joy Division; Curtis succumbing to the pressures and temptations of the rock n’ 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 movie’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, Curtis’ story somehow lacks a certain emotional resonance. Our pity for Deborah, our loathing of Curtis’ less admirable behaviors, our sympathy for his ever-worsening physical condition—it’s as if these feelings are consistently lost and rediscovered, dissipated at the end of each vignette.
Curtis’ now-adult daughter Natalie—whose birth is depicted in the movie, and who was still an infant when he died—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 troubled—tired, ill, and emotionally torn between family and mistress—we feel as if a piece of the puzzle is missing. Curtis’ deteriorating mental state, his destructive behavior, his ultimate suicide—all of these things bode undercurrents of self-loathing and clinical depression only hinted at in the movie.
Corbijn’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 same—it’s a tad too regimented, too enunciated in its presentation. Corbijn would have done better to leave just a trace of blood—or at least grit—on the movie’s otherwise pristine black-and-white frames.