October 2, 2007

Don't Walk Away In Silence

CONTROL (2007, dir. Anton Corbijn, scr. Matt Greenhalgh)

Best known as a photographer and music video director, Anton Corbijn makes his feature debut with this biopic of troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (played here by little-known British actor Sam Riley), who committed suicide in 1980 just as his band was ascending to stardom. The subject seemed like the perfect fit for Corbijn, who had personally photographed Joy Division before their dissolution, and whose spare, expressive, and monochromatic mise en scène (which remains more or less intact from his videos with Depeche Mode and U2) aligns neatly with Joy Division's minimal but haunting recorded output. Control has its fair share of stunning images, particularly a noirish sequence in which Curtis succumbs to an epileptic seizure during a late-night car trip and his bandmates lift him out of the vehicle for air; cinematographer Martin Ruhe gilds the edges of the black-clad young men with light, as though they are souls passing through an abyss -- which in Curtis' case is a rather apt choice. It's one of the prettiest films I've seen in quite some time.

While Corbijn proves to be an adept visual stylist, he is considerably less successful as a storyteller. Curtis was a conflicted and mercurial man, but Control gives us little insight into his character; although Riley does an admirable job of capturing his mannerisms, especially on stage, the script is unable to turn him into a fully-rounded human being. In attempting to understand Curtis, the film falls prey to one of the most exasperating conventions of rock 'n' roll biopics; namely, that every one of the protagonist's actions and moods can be explained away by Something That Happened To Him When He Was Younger. Apart from a precious few lighthearted moments, Curtis is depicted as a perpetual depressive whose every erratic behaviour and infidelity is prompted by his epilepsy, his medication and his unhappy marriage to Deborah (Samantha Morton, excellent as usual despite being stuck in the thankless stock role of the Long-Suffering Wife). This reduction of character development to a series of narrative cues has the frustrating effect of distancing us completely from Curtis, a decision that I'm not altogether convinced is intentional on Corbijn's part. He remains essentially unknowable, as much to the audience as to his wife (on whose autobiography the film was based).

This is not to say that Control is without merit. The acting is uniformly excellent; Toby Kebbell in particular provides some much-need comic relief as the band's ad hoc manager. The concert scenes are exhilirating as well, doubly so for how starkly they stand in relief to everything else on-screen; Riley channels Curtis' stage demeanor uncannily, and the actors' playing is pretty spot-on (they learned and performed the songs themselves rather than lip-syncing). The band's first meeting with Mancunian punk Svengali Tony Wilson (the subject of 24 Hour Party People) is uproarious, and I wish the film had spent more time with Joy Division than Curtis solo. As a gorgeously-photographed document of a pretty damned vital time for music, Control is worth seeing; as a portrait of a troubled young man, it comes up short. B-


jesse said...

can't wait to see this! it didn't screen at the CIFF for some reason though, so i guess i'll have to wait for a wider release. interesting to hear your criticisms as well, as this has gotten pretty much uniformly positive reviews from what i've read.

ps. i totally linked your blog on mine! great stuff, homie.

John P. said...

Thanks for the link, brohawk.

I wouldn't mind seeing Control again. I think my ambivalence toward it is due, at least in part, to the fact that I'm not one of those people who thinks Ian Curtis was the most important tortured genius/martyr/visionary of the last thousand years. I think that diehards will get more out of it than someone like me who listens to Substance once every six months.