Somber, sad and compelling, Ian Curtis biopic “Control,” about the lead singer of the ’80s post-punk Blighty band Joy Division, is a riveting, visually arresting portrait of a tormented soul. Sam Riley gives a winning perf in the central role and is surrounded by a strong ensemble of thesps. First feature helming bow by photographer Anton Corbijn manages to present working-class Northern England in a wide range of appealing grays that make the description “black-and-white film” inadequate. Widely anticipated by the band’s legion of fans, pic is assured a warm welcome and a successful worldwide tour.
Pic spans from 1973, when Curtis was a teenager, to his suicide in 1980, just prior to what was expected to be a successful U.S. tour. Auds familiar with Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” will recognize overlapping events covered in that biopic of Manchester music entrepreneur Tony Wilson (here played by Craig Parkinson, but thesped by Steve Coogan in the earlier pic).
Despite some amusing moments, the tone of this pic is considerably less lighthearted. It makes a fitting eulogy not just for Curtis, but for his ill-fated marriage to Deborah Curtis, whose memoir is the chief source for this heartfelt, anguished film.
At pic’s beginning, Hamlet-like teenager Ian Curtis, curled up in his bedroom, is already contemplating reasons for existence. Experimenting with pharmaceutical drugs and possessed by a desire to write poetry and song lyrics, Curtis lives in a David Bowie-lined cocoon, isolated from his family and the world. Something about a friend’s g.f. Debbie (Samantha Morton), however, reveals the butterfly within, and Ian quickly makes a play for her, with a devotion that rapidly leads to wedding bells.
Between love at first sight and marriage, Curtis attends (with Debbie glued to his side) a historic, sparsely attended Sex Pistols gig and inveigles himself into the position of lead vocalist of a singerless band that later will be called Joy Division.
Pic follows the well-known arc of rising pop stars outgrowing the conventional life of those around them, but Corbijn never loses sight of, or becomes indifferent to, Debbie’s pain in being deceived or left behind.
The tug of war between husband and wife is depicted fairly, but (unsurprisingly given the source material), the distress of the often monosyllabic, and frequently epileptic Ian is occasionally eclipsed by Morton’s astonishing, sympathetic performance as his suffering wife.
Nevertheless, Riley is likewise stunning. Except for the film’s opening and final reels, which grant him a voiceover, Riley’s portrayal is like a series of snapshots of different people: gentle, selfish, uncaring, ambitious. Riley is able to fashion these disparate personalities into a psychologically fractured but dramatically cohesive whole.
Supporting cast is strong, with Tony Kebbell standing out as Joy Division manager Rob Gretton, who provides comic relief and ruthless business acumen at the same time. In an indication of the script’s fairness, Alexandra Maria Lara is allowed a sympathetic turn as Curtis’ Belgian lover Annik.
Corbijn’s helming presents a visual rhapsody of grays and largely abstains from the artiness that plagues most snappers-cum-directors. Use of Joy Division songs (some re-performed by thesps playing the band) to illustrate the drama is well-informed and well-executed. Sound quality is excellent throughout, from musical concerts to Debbie’s shrill screams.