Who better to make a film about Joy Division and its troubled lead singer Ian Curtis than photographer Anton Corbijn? In 1979 the band's music inspired Corbijn to move to England where he embarked on an awesome career in pop photography. One of the first bands he photographed was Joy Division, and the photograph he took in the London tube became 'prophetic' after Curtis' tragic suicide.
Now, 27 years later, there's 'Control', Corbijn's debut film which tells the familiar pop history story of Ian Curtis and his band Joy Division's rise from Manchester's gloomy depression. Based on the book 'Touching from a Distance' by Curtis' wife Deborah, the film documents their early marriage, Curtis' musical career taking off, his guilt-ridden relationship with a Belgian belle, his suffering from epilepsy, aggravated by alcohol and primitive medication, and his increasing anguish and isolation. All of which spirals into an overwhelming sense of losing control, until, on the eve of Joy Division's first American tour, he hung himself in his kitchen. And even though the other band members would go on as New Order and create lasting music in their own right, Joy Division became the stuff of legend, more influential than famous.
So it's hard to separate the film from the legend, but to Corbijn's credit 'Control' is more than yet another biopic. Apart from the shared biographical background, Corbijn's trademark grainy black and white photography, which he also brought to this film, fits perfectly with Joy Division's bleak and haunting music. Corbijn avoids the mistake of making a feature-length music video, but sets a reflective pace and takes his time for every carefully framed shot, all adding to a brooding, melancholy atmosphere.
The acting performances, especially by Sam Riley (Curtis) and Samantha Morton (Deborah), also deserve mention. Morton manages to strike a balance between sympathy and patheticness as Curtis' clinging wife, conveying her emotions with her posture and eyes more than through dialogue. Riley of course is under scrutiny of being true to the real Curtis, but more importantly he convincingly portrays Curtis' inner torment which ultimately drives the story.
There is one memorably understated scene that somehow sums up the film. Curtis has a daytime job at an employment agency, where one of his clients is a girl with epilepsy. After Curtis has learned he himself has epilepsy, he calls her up to ask how she's doing and learns she has died. We don't hear when or how, we just see the look on Curtis' face: this is what awaits him, and in that instant you can see him adjust his whole outlook, changing from a cocky up-and-coming lead singer to a frightened boy with nowhere to turn to.
Implied in this scene as well is Curtis' inspiration for the song 'She's Lost Control', which in turn can be seen (heard) as an autobiographical outcry of his own desparate situation.
Confusion in her eyes that says it all.
She's lost control.
And she's clinging to the nearest passer by,
She's lost control.
And she gave away the secrets of her past,
And said I've lost control again,
And a voice that told her when and where to act,
She said I've lost control again.
But she expressed herself in many different ways,
Until she lost control again.
And walked upon the edge of no escape,
And laughed I've lost control.
She's lost control again.