On May 18, 1980, Deborah Curtis walked into her kitchen and found her husband, Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, hanged to death. As depicted in Anton Corbijn's Control, his feature debut, the event is all hers, shot from a distance, outside, across the street. Not even their infant daughter is present, having been left out in the car for what was to be just a moment. And certainly we, the audience, aren't brought in to examine the body, as we might have by another film.
It makes sense, because Control is based on Deborah Curtis' book "Touching from a Distance" (she also produced the film), which has been adapted here by Matt Greenhalgh. The moment should be all hers; it was her loss more than anyone's, in many ways. And at least in the way he's portrayed in the film, Ian Curtis did it just to hurt her, and that's what he's done, and that's what is shown. Sure, he may have been tortured, or unstable or anything else that could defend such a selfish act as suicide, but here he's pretty much a coward who couldn't make up his mind nor face up to any decision he actually was able to make.
Control begins in 1973, when Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) is a bored teenager in Macclesfield, England, listening to Bowie, Roxy Music and Mott the Hoople as all the young dudes of '70s Britain should. Fitting with the glam music, he wears furs and eyeliner, but what makes the setting unsettling is how void of color it is. Yes, Control was shot in black and white, which is only initially strange if you associate the glam scene with anything but an achromatic palette. And it completely foreshadows the wan and ultimately neutral behavior the singer would exhibit throughout the rest of his short, should-have-been-vibrant life.
From the first date-stamp, there isn't much to go on with chronology, but soon enough Curtis has stolen his best mate's girl, married her and had a baby girl. Somewhere in between he's also started a band with some other locals. At first they're called Warsaw, then Joy Division. At some point there's a poster in the background telling us it's the 1978 Battle of the Bands they're playing at. Meanwhile he's still working days in an employment office, where he witnesses a young woman have a seizure. It's another moment of foreshadowing, as not much later Ian himself suffers a fit while traveling home from a gig.
In the tradition of rock star biopics, things go downhill for the spouse as they go uphill for the band. After all, while there are probably one or two musicians in history who remained faithful, those aren't the ones who make dramatically interesting subjects. At least Control does right by the doting wife, typically given the shaft in these movies as simply victim and toss-away, here played as heartbreakingly courageous by two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (third times the charm?). When Deborah is asked how she copes with being married to a celebrity, she nonchalantly replies that he's no rock star to her; she still does washes his underpants. When she learns that Ian has a mistress, a Belgian tag-a-long named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), she's strong and pulls through it, just as she did when Ian told her earlier that he no longer loved her. But when he breaks his promise to break the affair off, she starts the ball rolling to become a liberated divorcee. Of course, because of his inability to deal with her decision, she ends up a widow instead.
Was it Corbijn's intent to depict Ian as so selfish? I doubt so much. Possibly, at least subconsciously, it was Deborah's angle in the book. But more so she's sure to mean for the book and film to be tributes to the man she couldn't stop loving. Likely it's my own subjective attitudes towards suicide that got me so focused on the negative. Two things I hate seeing in films are infidelity and suicide, and Control has both. I know, it's ludicrous for a film critic to despise such things, and maybe crazy to admit such. Almost every drama for adults these days (or is it these decades?) is about cheaters. And understandably I couldn't have had the appreciation for Shakespeare I have without putting up with a lot of characters killing themselves.
But my hatred for both infidelity and suicide does not permit me to hate the films in which they appear. Nor does it even necessarily make me dislike the character who cheats or kills himself. I just found it interesting how much my subjectivity came through while watching the film, because it actually made me appreciate Control more. It made me focus predominantly on Deborah's role in the story, which really anchors the film. And yet in a reciprocal fashion, it was Morton's performance what drew me to the character.
As Ian Curtis, Sam Riley is also great, in the subdued, simple-seeming, look-a-like representation it is. And it helps his accomplishment that it's his voice we hear in all the live scenes (its also his cast-mates as band-mates Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson and Harry Treadaway we hear playing the instruments). As another subjective confession, I love Joy Division and honestly would have enjoyed the movie anyway based solely on that. And who doesn't like seeing a rock star go through pains and problems and screw up his life? It's the reason we have VH1, or at least the reason our favorite concerts -- as Factory Records head Tony Wilson (as played by Craig Parkinson) says -- are the ones that involve riots and other disasters. However, I certainly would have concentrated more on the music and the stuff involving the band, particularly on Riley's near-spot-on performance as Curtis, were it not for Morton. If only Meg Ryan had been so good in The Doors, maybe I wouldn't have so much idolized Jim Morrison, an obvious predecessor to and influence on Curtis.
Control hasn't really left me hating Ian Curtis. I can't totally accept the film as being the last word any more than I accept the same for any other surface-skimming biopic, even if Curtis' so-so-short life allows for more a feeling of his entirety in two hours time than most subjects' lives do or could – at the end of the film it's easy to think you've just watched a lifetime's worth of material, maybe even forgetting Curtis died as young as 23 if you weren't told the fact. One great moment in the film actually addresses how little we're able to learn about Curtis when he tells Annik his favorite film (The Sound of Music) and his favorite color (a shade of blue specific to his favorite football club) and it's revealing how surprising it is that we in the audience would have never taken him for a fan of either happy musicals nor of sports in general, let alone had he a favorite team.
No, I don't now hate Ian Curtis. But I never felt that I loved the person before hand, either. I loved the music, the legacy he left behind, sure, but that's it. All I know is that at the end of Control, when Deborah gets out of her car, tells little Natalie she'll be right back, walks into the flat, walks past the window, disappears from view and then screams, I couldn't help myself and I got pretty choked up. And it wasn't because I was sad for or about Ian.
Be sure to read James Rocchi's review of Control from the Cannes Film Festival here. Control opens in New York City October 10 and in Los Angeles October 19 with a nationwide release to follow.