Control, Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of Deborah Curtis’ memoir of her life with Ian Curtis, Touching from a Distance, is, fundamentally, a film about death. Its audience presumably knows how the film will end. It doesn’t end well. It is also a film about creativity which, as many films about creativity tend to do, paints it as a correlative to inner turmoil. The artist’s biography becoming inseparable from their work.
Many friends had approached this film with some degree of suspicion and left feeling that it hadn’t quite succeeded but the performances of James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Summer (doesn’t get to say much but turns out to have studied hypnotherapy) , Joe Anderson as Peter Hook (wants to rechristen the band The Slaves of Venus), Craig Parkinson as Tony Wilson (signs contract in blood, then faints) and particularly Toby Kebbell as Rob Gretton, the band’s manager (“Don’t worry Ian, it could be worse, you could be the singer of the Fall.”) were all engaging. As were Samantha Morton as Deborah Curtis and Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik.
Sam Riley’s sour pout sometimes resembles Brian Jones more than Ian Curtis but his mixture of bewilderment and resignation finds somewhat convincing expression in his recreation of Curtis’ frenetic, apoplectic dancing. The sight of a man tearing himself apart.
This fictional Joy Divison mimed (and sung) along convincingly enough to New Order’s recreation of their former band’s sound and were as convincing, or otherwise, as the way this same cast of characters were depicted in Michael Winterbottom’s 24hr Party People but the tone here is darker.
To borrow a phrase from Adam Marrs Jone’s appraisal of Heath Ledger’s career, it is as if “the artist who is stolen from us prematurely is buried in a glass coffin”, that eternal youth and immortality, might somehow be the prize of a premature death. This necrophile death cult finds its home in the Rockist fantasies of self destructive Goths. Though some outlive its shadow, many don’t and Corbijn’s emphatically black and white photography, though brilliant, is in some ways a pornography of despair.
Whilst it is the case that Love Will Tear Apart, the song for which Joy Division are mostly widely known, does correlate closely to the doomed Curtis’ tragic affair with Annik Honoré and troubled relationship with his wife, Deborah – in general, as Simon Reynolds points out in Rip It Up And Start Again, Joy Division’s songs and perhaps the source of their grandeur, was expressed in terms of a more general alienation.
I wondered if the sound of Joy Division, as remembered by their fans, is in some way different from their actual sound. Whether, gathering dust and unplayed, in the corner of the record collection, their recordings now might sound harsher. That Joy Division Remembered (partly as a result of New Order’s ultimately more commercial and dance orientated sound) – has become a bit, well …..dare I say it, “rock classic”.
Repackaged in the mausoleum of an expensive box set, the risk is that Joy Division Remembered might become an airbrushed version without the inconvenient details. A deathcult, as Corbijn’s cover for Closer predicted.
Despite these reservations, the desperation of Joy Division’s sound, at once both agitated and tranquilized, the self loathing and the deadpan Mancunian Humour were all there in the performances. Even the queasy flirtation with Nazi imagery (hotly denied) made it into the script.
Whether, in the end, Curtis comes across as an anti-social misanthropist or a tortured genius (and ultimately the two are not incompatible) remains a matter of perspective but whilst obsessives may find details over which to quibble Control remains a striking directorial debut which anatomises the collapse of a relationship under the strain of fame achieved perhaps too fast too soon.