Debbie (Samantha Morton) is introduced to Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) by her boyfriend Tony. He's a tall, angular Bowie clone; the eyeliner and make up aren't particularly radical in 1977, but he's more exotic than most of her Macclesfield school friends. He writes poetry and songs, and he's good at it too. She and Tony come to Ian's bedroom to kiss and cuddle. Ian doesn't seem very interested. He smokes and listens to his records. Later, with Tony's permission, he takes Debbie to see Bowie. It's their first date.
So far, so ordinary. In fact, Anton Corbijn's film about singer-songwriter Ian Curtis underlines the ordinariness by shooting in black and white. Lancashire in the fag-end of the 70s was a grey time to be young, as the ironically named Joy Division also stressed. Most Hollywood biopics tend to portray their heroes as 'men of destiny': Ray Charles wasn't going to let a little thing like blindness get in his way.
Ian Curtis may have seen himself this way - like a million other adolescents, he dreamed of rock n roll stardom and dying young - but his blaze of glory was over almost before it began; the film suggests it was precisely his failure to reconcile his sense of himself and where he came from with the imminent prospect of success that pushed him over the edge.
He marries Debbie young - they're both still children - and even when Joy Division are fast on the way to becoming the most exciting band in the country, Ian's still working down at the Employment Office.
There's not a great deal of triumph in his nightlife either. Ian and the boys talk big, but they're nervous performers; Ian's intensity puts them over, but increasingly he's drained by the ordeal. His jerky, spasmodic dance moves become a trademark, but on a rough night the dance can spill over into an epileptic fit. The condition is potentially fatal, and treatment involves mix n match cocktails of drugs in the hope that something might take. That audiences seem to get off on the display only makes it harder.
Babyfaced newcomer Sam Riley looks more like Pete Doherty than Curtis, but he is compelling on stage and enthralling off it. It's no stretch to believe him as a sensitive artist or as a lying egomaniac. He's both and the one is at war with the other.
Based on Debbie Curtis's memoir, 'Touching from a Distance', Control devotes more time than most rock biopics would on 'er indoors', the little woman left behind holding the baby while her husband begins an affair with Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Dutch fan he meets on the road. Samantha Morton fights to give Debbie her due, but it's an unequal battle. Ian protests he still loves her but what we see tells a different story. That said, there's little doubt that this relationship was the inspiration for Curtis's best song, 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', and it's surprising this didn't end up the title of the movie too.
Already highly praised at Cannes, Edinburgh and Toronto, Control may be benefiting from the enduring cult appeal of Joy Division's music. For all its evocative photography, the film is marred by its sometimes plodding, linear screenplay (and then this happened…and then this…). In mood, it's the somber inverse of Michael Winterbottom's raucous 24 Hour Party People, which features several of the same incidents, though Tony Kebbell (Dead Man's Shoes) injects some welcome northern humour as lippy manager Rob Gretton. It seems safe to assume Ian Curtis wasn't a party person.Tom Charity
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