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A troubled star
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
CONTROL: Directed by Anton Corbijn. Screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh. Cinematography, Martin Ruhe. Music, Joy Division and New Order. Starring Samantha Morton, Sam Riley, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Kebbell and Craig Parkinson. The Weinstein Company, 2007. R. 121 min.
For decades, photographer, designer, video director and now filmmaker Anton Corbijn has created striking images of celebrities. His images of U2 are definitive; his portraits, especially those in sharp black and white, are unforgettable. Corbijn’s imagery and aesthetic have been entangled with rock ‘n’ roll for years, so it’s appropriate that his first feature film, Control, is a musical endeavor, a moody (fictional) portrait of Joy Division’s troubled singer, Ian Curtis.
Joy Division is a band that’s both a little before my time and thoroughly of it, for their music continues to influence countless musicians. But their time seems, in retrospect, very specific: the era of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records (also the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People) and, as presented in Control, a time of boundless potential. But in this film, becoming a band, writing songs, attaining success — those details are less important. What’s central is everything else that makes demands on a young man: a marriage, a child, an affair, an epilepsy diagnosis and an inability to cope with everything at once, even when so much of it seems like the stuff dreams are made of.
Like his photographs, Corbijn’s film is breathtakingly beautiful, presented in striking black and white (though it was shot in color) that shifts from cold and spare to warm and familiar. As Ian Curtis, Sam Riley is wide-eyed and sweet, selfish and quietly cruel in turns. Riley doesn’t have quite the depths to express Curtis’ inner difficulties with epilepsy and the emotional wringer performing puts him through; when he says, offstage, that he gives so much while singing, the film is telling us something it’s been unable to show. But scenes with Curtis’ wife Deborah (Samantha Morton) and his mistress Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara) are thick with feeling, distance and uncertainty. Control is less musical history than it is an exploration of the things that might have led Curtis, who seems both impulsive and withdrawn, to hang himself at the age of 23 on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour. There are no easy answers, only suggestions, notions, possibilities, and Control doesn’t lionize Curtis or let him off the hook for his flaws (though it does make musical success, at least in the U.K. in the late 1970s, seem partly just a matter of frequenting the right pub). Dreamy, gritty, heartfelt and yet somehow a little unsatisfying, Control is a film for both Joy Division fans and those interested in the intersection of reality and what we perceive as fame — and what power that fame can wrest from an individual’s life.
Control opens Friday, Jan. 18, at the Bijou.