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Ian Curtis is a quiet and rather sad lad who works for an employment agency and sings in a band called Warsaw. He meets a girl named Debbie whom he promptly marries and his band, of which the name in the meantime has been changed to Joy Division, gets more and more successful. Even though Debbie and he become parents, their relationship is going downhill rapidly and Ian starts an affair with Belgium Annik whom he met after one of the gigs and he's almost never at home. Ian also suffers from epilepsy and has no-good medication for it. He doesn't know how to handle the feelings he has for Debbie and Annik and the pressure the popularity of Joy Division and the energy performing costs him. Written by
Marco van Hoof <email@example.com>
Careers in a tightly controlled arc, where music biopic meets cinematic excellence
Control, a biopic about a band from Manchester, is getting serious attention from around the world. Starting with an award in Cannes. That's maybe more than you might expect. Joy Division, a respected band of the 70s, are hardly a name on everyone's lips. And films made by ex music video directors about yet another load of rockers rarely raise eyebrows. So why is this different? Joy Division, for non-initiates, were a post-punk Manchester band of throbbing guitars and dark, doom-laden lyrics. Recognition in the music biz (especially by other musicians) was perhaps even greater after the death of lead singer, Ian Curtis. Control covers a period from his schooldays to his end in 1980 (aged 23). It is based on the biography of his widow.
Control uses Curtis' love of poetry, as well as the more familiar songs-that-tell-a-story device, to provide at least scant insight into the music. "I wish I were a Warhol silkscreen, hanging on the wall," he muses. But what is dealt with in much more detail is his growing sense of isolation, coping with epilepsy as the pressures of touring build up, and the distraught domestic relations he is embroiled in with wife Debbie (Samantha Morton) and romantic-interest-from-afar Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara). "It's like it's not happening to me but someone pretending to be me. Someone dressed in my skin," he says.
In a telling scene when he is under hypnosis, the camera revolves around his head as we hear voices speaking to him. "Ian, let me in, love," says his wife, "there's room to talk." Responsibilities as husband and father. A mistress who is also in love with him. A band and fan following who want more than he can give. From warholian, carefree screen-dream of youth, he has arrived at a place where he doesn't want to be. Drugs and their side-effects no longer a schoolboy's recreational laugh. Prescription bottles grip with morbid fascination. And the knowledge that doctors don't have a cure.
The film carries viewers away with blistering intensity. Relative newcomer Sam Riley plays Curtis with alarming energy. With Samantha Morton, it's not what she says but what you see going through her mind. She contains her expressiveness for the camera to pick up (rather than thrusting it on us). We want to cry inside for her character. As a feat of interiorisation, Control puts her as a contender in the shoes of Meryl Streep.
Supporting cast members come through with believability and sincerity, sparkling with well-honed contrasts. Toby Kebbell, fast-talking manager Rob, lifts us out of the depressive mood with wisecracks enough to make legless monkeys jump. "Where's my £20?" asks a hapless stand-in as Rob deals with an emergency. "In my f*ck-off pocket!" he barks back. Craig Parkinson is record producer and late TV presenter Tony Wilson (to whom the opening screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival was dedicated). He demonstrates fine shades of teeth-gritting tolerance, explaining to the band, seconds before their first live TV show: yes, 'large dog's c*ck' counts as swearing, and would mean the broadcast is pulled. Established Romanian actress, Alexandra Maria Lara, succeeds in making Annik far more than the two-dimensional bit-of-fluff that would have been an easy course. As potential home-breaker, it is tempting to hate her, yet her character is shown with the intellectual appreciation and chemistry that Debbie can no longer offer.
Morton, in the Q&A after the Edinburgh premiere, links the film to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It is the kitchen-sink, downtrodden existence that her Debbie inhabits. Cinematography is also reminiscent of this period, with its careful black-and-white observation of working class streets. I watched it a second time, enjoying careful compositions and suggestive mise-en-scene. But director Anton Corbijn is typically modest. "I really wanted you to look at the actors on the screen and only afterwards at the look of the film." While Ian, in Debbie's eyes, might be the licentious and 'angry young man' of social realism drama, the Control scenes from which she is tormentedly absent show another side: the world experienced by her husband (a reference in the film likens his isolation to Brando's character in Apocalypse Now).
"And we would go on as though nothing was wrong. And hide from these days we remained all alone."
Riley takes on manic expressions as if marching away from an impending epileptic fit while singing Transmission. It is such a potent, almost frightening feat, that we have to shake ourselves to remember he only got the part when he was stuck for a job. "Not a lot was going on in my life before this, so I was appreciative for the work and the money," he tells the opening night audience. "I imagine this will have opened doors for you," I had said to him earlier; he smiled like a man who still can't believe his good luck. But the 'luck' is very well deserved. His 'Ian' is physically and mentally complex. When I had managed to stop him on the Red Carpet long enough to congratulate him, Mr Riley explains that he had a friend who was an epileptic. "I witnessed an attack often enough to be able to copy it."
Although the film has a driving energy that takes our breath away, it drifts a little towards the tragic conclusion. We know the ending and it is a case of waiting for it to happen. And although it features plenty of excellent Joy Division tracks, any music biopic will never be good enough or accurate enough for some fans.
Fortunately this is not just for music fans but for serious film fans as well. It careers in a tightly controlled arc, where music biopic meets cinematic excellence. Why should you see it? "Some people visit the past for sentimental reasons," says Corbijn. "Some people visit the past to understand the present better." Control is not in the sentimental exercise category.
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