“Control” holds you in your seat even when nothing seems to be going on. It is a most arresting visual experience that captures the emptiness of a brilliant mind.
The aesthetic is a cold one, sharply shot in monochrome, reflecting the total lack of hope in the industrial Macclesfield of the late 1970s. Anton Corbijn, the director, has decided to bend facts here and there in order to render a totality which is dark, depressing, but also inspirational. Corbijn, in telling the story of Ian Curtis, the doomed lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division, is no historian. He remains an artist, a fact to which his many music videos attest. There is considerable confusion over where the action takes place throughout the film; however, this is not really a problem for Corbijn. The film does not just represent Manchester or Macclesfield in the 1970s but rather England’s Northeast, reeling from industrial decline and the lack of consumers in the form of an empire.
Into this turbulent world, Curtis is born, an apolitical youth with a penchant for gloom, abusing prescription drugs, and David Bowie. Curtis is played by Sam Riley, who enters the character entirely. Below Riley’s furrowed brow and shaded eyes, there is no actor trying to play Ian Curtis, there is only Ian Curtis. Riley shares some background with Curtis (he was a struggling rock-artist in Leeds before deciding to be an actor), and this seems to enable him to play the brooding rock star with apparent ease. As with the Curtis of real life, there is always something “bad,” as one of Curtis’ former girlfriends put it, about knowing this seemingly placid character.
Debbie Woodruff, Curtis’s teen bride, is played by Samantha Morton. Her character is flawed not by poor acting but by the natural feelings of annoyance and pity we hold toward a person bound to an impossible dreamer who always knew that he would not live to old age, an artist who was obsessed by the glory of youth destroyed and would kill himself at the age of 23. Although Curtis treats her with little more than indifference, one does manage to blame her; her refusal to accept Curtis as an adulterer remains irritating.
Curtis’ adultery with Belgian Embassy worker Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) is never really criticized, and Curtis’ weeping after their first orgasm reconciles him to the audience. The only point at which one is forced to pity the now-pregnant Debbie is when she calls the Belgian Embassy and cannot pronounce Honoré’s name (saying Hon-or-ay instead), and Annik says, in a perfect accent “Annik Honoré, bonjour.” This forces the cruelty of the situation to come to the fore; Curtis’ desire for the more exotic, beautiful Annik over his utterly devoted wife who he has told that he no longer loves is cast into its rightful cruel light. However, neither Curtis’ adultery nor his suicide are criticized by Corbijn entirely. Curtis’ violence toward Debbie, both verbal and physical, is also left out as this would hurt the cold-but-heroic figure of Curtis that the movie portrays.
Curtis’ flaw, his epilepsy, which the movie makes a great deal of, is perhaps overemphasized due to the funding the film received from the British Epilepsy Council. However, an image that is enduring even weeks after seeing the movie is that of Curtis collapsing in a fit onstage and band manager Rob Gretton (Tony Kebbell) saying “It could have been worse, you could have been in the Fall.” Curtis’ epilepsy is treated with a wry humour by the others until he learns of the death of a woman he helped to find a job. He writes the song “She’s Lost Control,” from which the film takes its title, and Curtis’ hate for his own lack of control takes root.
The music, of course, is fantastic. The cast plays its own instruments and sings their own songs, although one would not guess it. The skill involved in the fantastic reproduction of Joy Division’s songs is phenomenal, and the aesthetic only serves to heighten the bleakness and lack of joy in the music. The film even experiments with New Order, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Joy Division, when Bernard Sumner (James Pierson) tries hypnotherapy on Ian.
When Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson), record-label owner and TV presenter, first presents Joy Division’s “Transmission” to the world, he says that the program has brought “the newest and most exciting sounds in the Northeast” to its viewers “from the Beatles to the Buzzcocks.” One is forced to think of Joy Division as a phenomenon of this part of England that the rest of the country forgot but was still able to produce seminal bands and fantastic music. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe captures this flawed haven perfectly; rolling Cheshire hills contrast with humble terraces and the menace of 1960s concrete tower blocks throughout this extraordinary film.