Director Anton Corbjn, starring Sam Riley (Ian Curtis) and Samantha Morton (Deborah Curtis)
I’d put off watching (and reviewing) this movie because I was wary of how a familiar story would be told and whether I’d recognise the characters portrayed on screen. I never met Joy Division but have read Deborah Curtis’s “Touching from a Distance” on which the film was based. I needn’t have worried.
A film fills a finite time: it cannot portray every single event in 23 years. What it can do is capture and convey aspects of the subject: pictures that may have to bend small truths to tell a greater one. “Control”, atmospherically shot in monochrome, starts with school boy Ian dating Deborah and joining Warsaw, a band in search of a singer. It ends with his death. It’s not a cheerful story, although there is humour on the way. Ian Curtis’s black humour isn’t captured here: Anton Corbjn prefers a moody, brooding Curtis. Manager Rob Gretton (played by Toby Kebbell) is used as light relief.
Sam Riley catches Curtis’s persona well – the on-stage jerks and twitches, his confusion developing into despair as he sinks into inertia. Curtis didn’t know he was epileptic until he had a grand mal attack after a gig. One of the side-effects of the medication he was on to control his seizures was mental confusion. Sam Riley creates that both believably, with empathy and without self-pity.
Samantha Morton is the Deborah of “Touching from a Distance”. Her consistent support and love for Ian are shown. Ian couldn’t cope with a day job and playing gigs at night so Deborah took on a job so Ian could stop working. Deborah accepted she would effectively be a single parent to their daughter Natalie as Ian toured with the band while she was left at home. The film touches on that too: how she as a wife was excluded from gigs and from being with the band because it was thought she would be detrimental to the band’s image. She turns up at one gig whilst heavily pregnant and even her husband asks if she should be there “in her condition”. The question isn’t directly asked, but if Deborah had been allowed on tour, would Ian have had an affair with Belgian fanzine writing, Annik? Ian develops two lives, a home life with Deborah and Natalie and a touring life with lover Annik. He oscillates between the two women. He drops out of a tour, too confused to continue.
There’s a dichotomy at the heart of every suicide. It’s both a selfless act and a selfish one. The suicide thinks he’s ridding others of a burden, yet those left behind have lost a loved one. Deborah screams. Annik collapses. The film’s closing shot focuses on a crematorium chimney: tall, clothed in grey, jerking out smoke against clouds.
Naturally, the soundtrack’s brilliant. The film seeks to tell its story, but not tell viewers how to think. Ian may have behaved immaturely, but he was only 23. If you don’t know his story, “Control” is a good starting point. But don’t forget to check out the music.