Anton Corbijn’s Control is now ten years old. Despite its age, its subject matter is as relevant now as it was in 2007. Based on Touching from a Distance (Deborah Curtis’ memoir), Control explores the complex character of Ian Curtis and the formation of Joy Division. Today, Joy Division has attained a cult status, but in the late 1970’s they were another new band coming out of Macclesfield. The film watches more like an elongated music video than an average biopic, but its stylised aesthetic and black and white visuals lend to a tone and a personality – that of Curtis’ vast intellect and undeniable virtuosity.
Control is inherently British, capturing the essence of a country engulfed in an anarchic new music scene. Corbijn’s decision to shoot in black and white transports its viewer to another time, one of legend. The aesthetic also adds an appropriate melancholy to what is a dark and – by the very end – genuinely heartbreaking tale. Ian Curtis’ depression is presented not in a brash and forceful way but as a slow, creeping illness that takes hold abruptly. Scenes of the band playing small live shows are interspersed among tender moments between Curtis, his wife Debbie and his relationship with Annik Honore.
Control‘s relevance is in its portrayal of a young, troubled man who is so struck down by life he decides to take his own. The exploration, however minimal, of this in Corbijn’s biopic is somewhat harrowing and in 2017 we see the effects of depression more than ever as society finally stands up to speak. In amongst moments of poetic narration from Sam Riley’s Curtis and vignettes of his isolation we see a group of young lads trying to make their musical dreams come true. We laugh at adolescent mischief and smile at the development of young love. Corbijn is eager to represent that it wasn’t all awful for Ian and Joy Division, as is so often the case in any life. Mostly, it’s in what isn’t said than what is. The bleak effects of Ian’s behaviour on his wife Debbie are put to us in unflinching ways and Samantha Morton plays the role in a painfully realistic fashion. Sam Riley embodies Ian through his mannerisms both on and off-stage, but is careful never to present him as heroic, but rather as young man burdened by the difficulties of his situation.
There isn’t any telling if Joy Division would have risen to the level of stardom they attained had Ian not taken his own life in 1980. Similarly, Nirvana have become legend because of Kurt Cobain. These musicians spark something within people, whether it be their music or their troubled lives, and filmmakers such as Corbijn explore them in cinema that is often exceptional. The intrigue and excellence are perhaps predominantly down to the subjects themselves, but the artistry attached to the world they created for themselves captivates directors and audiences alike.
Corbijn’s background as a music video director and photographer both aid and stilt him. There are an array of important details not fully explored, from the deterioration of Ian’s mental health to his relationship with his wife, and especially the journey Joy Division shared. For a music biopic there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the formation of the band and it suddenly skips from day one to the recording of an album. The confusing chronology and short, snappy scenes add rather than detract from the narrative, but at times creates a disinterest within its viewer.
Control is a visually compelling piece of cinema that chronicles the birth of Joy Division and the last years of Ian Curtis’ life in a biopic that is unflinching and both exceptional and ordinary. Ordinary, because what we see is the basic beginnings of an exciting new band in a town in Cheshire. Exceptional, because Anton Corbijn directs with such vivid artistry, representing a brewing depression through a skillfully crafted visual that engulfs its viewer. You’ll finish the film with a broken heart and a need to listen to Closer, having learned more about how a man whose short but important life, and the music he created, still strikes a chord with many.