I had the pleasure of seeing the Anton Corbijn movie Control earlier this week, and while it provided few surprises, it was solid enough entertainment...if "entertainment" is the correct term to use in describing a film about the events that lead to the protagonist's suicide. In fact, Corbijn's film, which received the CICAE Art & Essai awards at Cannes this year, struggles in two respects; first, the fact that the film's narrative arc will be known to most of its viewers, and second, that a previous film, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, covered roughly the same territory five years before.
On its own merits, however, Control has much to recommend it. Sam Riley's performance as Ian Curtis is little short of uncanny, especially in the live scenes, where Riley gets Curtis' eyes-closed, eyebrows-raised, hunched over the mic stance dead-on. Samantha Morton plays against type as Debbie Curtis, the singer's wife, portraying her as slightly mousy and unremittingly homely, especially when compared to her husband's free-spirited, independent and worldly Belgian mistress Annik Honore. That Honore is portrayed in the film in an even-handed way and not in the slightly (and understandably) derogatory tones of Debbie Curtis' book Touching From A Distance, on which the film is based, is no doubt down to the intervening hand of the scriptwriter, Matt Greenhalgh. The actors who play the rest of Joy Division (Joe Anderson, James Pearson, Harry Treadaway) give engaging performances, and extra kudos to them for playing all the songs live rather than miming to the original tracks. Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) provides occasional, and much needed, moments of levity, especially in his scenes with the hapless Alan Hempsall of Crispy Ambulance (AH "Where's my twenty quid?"/ RG "In my fuck-off pocket!"). John Cooper Clarke, playing himself at a recreation of the last night of the Electric Circus, is good value as always (and as my wife pointed out, is probably the only survivor from that era who could still comfortably fit into his old clothes. In fact, come to think of it, I don't actually think he's changed clothes since 1978...). The mise-en-scene is astonishingly accurate, down to the Golden Wonder crisps, and recreates the bleakness of the era in vivid monochrome detail. The soundtrack is exactly right, taking in Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk as well as Joy Division. And while there are few surprises in such a well-known story, there was one revelation, for me at least; was the insistent tss-tss sound on She's Lost Control really produced by a deftly-deployed aerosol canister?
While Greenhalgh's script is commendably non-partisan, he clearly missed the screenwriters' class where they teach them that "show, don't tell" is the best way to move narrative forward. Thus, there's a particularly clunking scene where, after an early gig, the band are greeted backstage by a tousle-haired, bespectacled stranger, and the following paraphrased dialogue ensues...
Gretton (for it is he): "You're good, lads, but you need a good manager..."
Band: "Who are you?"
Gretton: "The name's Rob Gretton."
Roadie: "But they've already got a manager...me."
Gretton: "And who are you?"
Roadie: "I'm Terry Mason."
There are a few other cavils. Tony Wilson, played by Craig Parkinson, seems to be channeling the spirit of Peter Cook, as others have pointed out. But most of all, the film is exactly as you'd expect an Anton Corbijn film about Joy Division to be. Slightly predictable, in other words. There's little use of moving camera, no spontaneity, even in the gig scenes. Many of the shots are so well composed, it's like looking at a 120-minute Depeche Mode or U2 photo. And despite the moments of hilarity provided by the Rob Gretton and Peter Hook characters, it's almost entirely reverent, portraying Curtis as a doomed, tortured genius, rather than the often-selfish, occasionally-childish flawed character of Debbie Curtis' book. I missed, for instance, moments like this, at the Leigh Festival of 1979...
The whole thing is a bit like an extended version of Corbijn's video for Atmosphere. And if you think that the most obvious thing that the director of a film about Joy Division could do would be to put Atmosphere over the closing scenes, then I hope I'm not giving anything away by revealing that Corbijn obliges. It's all a bit too tasteful, a bit Peter Saville; classic-looking, hagiographic, not-at-all gritty, despite its subject matter. In this it suffers slightly by comparison to Winterbottom's earlier film, which was, I suppose, the Central Station take on the Factory story; irreverent, anarchic, free-wheeling. And it's this that I missed most in Control. The film feeds the Ian Curtis mythology, that of the tortured, enigmatic genius, and while 24 Hour Party People played fast and loose with the facts, I can't help feeling that it was closer to the messy, complicated truth of Factory and the characters that surrounded the label than Corbijn's black-and-white (in all senses of the phrase) version.
"I was wary about what I had been told about turning up at gigs without the other girls, so I made sure I collected Sue Sumner from her flat before driving to the festival. It was a bright, warm day and I was disappointed because it hadn't occurred to me to take Natalie along. I mentioned this to Ian, but he was so busy discussing the size of a particularly large turd in the toilet tents that he didn't seem to hear me." (Touching From A Distance, p.89)