From the Archives: Control (2007)

17 Feb

“I exist on the best terms I can.”

These chilling words uttered by Sam Riley’s Ian Curtis in the opening scene of Anton Corbijn’s black-and-white biopic are fairly indicative of the compelling journey into the psyche of the troubled Joy Division frontman that is to follow. Yet as sombre as these words may appear, Control is by no means a melancholy dirge. Corbijn manages to weave a brilliantly captivating account of Curtis’ descent from hopeful poet to self-destructive enigma, expertly combining moments of overwhelming sadness with great humor.

Based on Curtis’ wife Deborah’s memoirs Touching from a Distance, Corbijn charts Curtis’ rapid rise from small town Macclesfield lad to critically acclaimed punk-pop pioneer. Utilizing the initial twenty minutes of Control as a means of outlining the background leading to the formation of Joy Division, Corbijn portrays Curtis as a typical moody teenager, isolated from his family and underachieving at school, whilst highlighting his obvious interest in poetry and literature citing influences ranging from Wordsworth to David Bowie.

Before long, Curtis is married to childhood sweetheart Deborah (Samantha Morton) and following the famously seminal Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Warsaw (as Joy Division was initially known) are formed. With the essential back-story exposition out of the way, Control develops into a fascinating insight into the increasingly fragile state of mind of Curtis set against the backdrop of the rise to prominence of his band. Grappling with epilepsy he can’t control and a marriage blighted by betrayal, Riley’s Curtis comes across as an incredibly gifted but mentally unstable individual, unable to cope with the guilt of his affair with Belgian fan Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara) and the pressure of the spiraling success of Joy Division.

Curtis’ epilepsy forces him for the first time to consider his own mortality, essentially consigning him to a lifetime of self-medication if he is to maintain any semblance of control over his condition. Coupled with his growing disillusionment with his banal home life with doting wife Deborah and daughter Natalie, Curtis seeks solace in Annik, whom he seems to genuinely love. Grappled with guilt, Curtis becomes increasingly isolated from his wife and indeed his band. A telling scene in a recording studio has Curtis literally cut off from his band in a booth as he lays down the vocals to “Isolation”; the lyrics “I’m ashamed of the person I am” perfectly encapsulating his growing desperation. Overwhelmed by fame and the pressures of success and torn between his wife and lover, Curtis attempts suicide, his assertion that “I’ve no control anymore” revealing the cause of his internal strife. Despite the inevitability of his eventual fate, witnessing Curtis mentally unravel is genuinely upsetting as it becomes increasingly apparent that he is being enveloped by helplessness and despair.

Whilst Corbijn’s direction excels in its depiction of Curtis’ flawed genius, the resounding success of Control lies in the casting. Riley is nothing short of a revelation. Not only has he perfected Curtis’ trademark stage mannerisms (admirable enough in itself) but his haunting vocals during the various gig scenes are so spot on that the band’s performance comes across as genuine Joy Division archive footage. Given that the his fellow actors actually play their instruments in these scenes only adds to this sense of realism. Equally impressive are James Anthony Pearson (an uncanny Bernard Sumner), James Anderson (an amusing Peter Hook) and a fantastically over the top Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton.

Also deserving of mention is the use of Joy Division’s back catalog throughout Control. Never have the lyrics of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” been more pertinent than when overlaying a scene of Curtis telling Deborah that he doesn’t love her anymore. The fact that Curtis subsequently begs Deborah not to divorce him, despite him not being able to leave Annik underlines the fact that control or lack of it (over almost every aspect of his life) ultimately sealed his fate; one which while expected is no less harrowing when the moment finally arrives.


(originally featured at on 12/10/07)


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