Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton
I feel like I've been waiting for a movie like Control for a long time. It's a biopic that not only seems to really "get" its subject - Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, masterfully played by Sam Riley - but also finds the exact right balance between the professional achievements and ambitions that made him famous and the personal life that inspired and, in some ways, derailed him. It is a beautifully rendered and poetic film.
The film spans from 1973 to 1980, beginning with Curtis meeting his future wife Debbie Woodruff (Samantha Morton) and ending with his suicide. It is a film that is as much about a marriage as it is about a band, which is not surprising given that the screenplay is adapted from Woodruff's memoir "Touching From A Distance," and that she acted as co-producer on the production. Curtis is depicted here as both a sensitive, artistic type and as someone oddly detached from the very emotions he expresses in his poetry and music. At times it almost seems as if he understands emotions but doesn't really feel them himself, that for him love is less about what he feels for another person than about what they feel for him. He is a strangely muted presence when he's not on stage, a passive figure who doesn't seem to make decisions so much as surrender to inevitabilities. When he casually says to Debbie, "Let's get married" (and, later, "Let's have a baby"), it seems less like something that he's decided he wants than something that, for the moment, seems to him like the thing to do.
He and Debbie do get married and they do have a baby and he joins the band that will become Joy Division. He throws himself into the work (many of the performance scenes show him dripping with sweat, looking exhausted and exhilarated) and soon discovers that his career ambitions are at odds with his family responsibilities. Out on the road, he drifts into an affair with Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian journalist, and he struggles with epilepsy. The epilepsy, the pressures of fame, and his feelings of being torn between domesticity and freedom - the sense that in every way, he's lost control - all converge one night when he hangs himself from the clothes line in the kitchen.
His final act is interesting when you consider the way that the film frames his relationships with Annik and, particularly, Debbie. Though he enters into his marriage with (presumably) good intentions, by the time he starts to find success he's come to resent Debbie and the middle class milieu to which she's tied him. His relationship with Annik represents freedom, but only in a very tentative sense. She can't actually free him, he has to do that himself by making a decision, but since he's such a passive character he instead ping pongs between the two women, at one point insisting to Debbie that one relationship doesn't have to do with the other. Even when Debbie essentially makes the decision for him, he still feels bound to her and what she represents and trapped between that life and the life represented by Annik. When he commits suicide he not only claims the freedom he had hoped to get from Annik, he also effectively repudiates the way of life represented by Debbie by hanging himself from the clothes line, a symbol of domesticity.
The screenplay creates a nicely layered pscyhological portrait of Curtis, but it would all be for naught without Riley's wonderful performance. He disappears into the role, portraying Curtis as wounded, sometimes frustratingly remote, sometimes casually cruel. The film's best scenes are those between him and Morton, an actress who with each role convinces me that she's one of the best (if not the best) actresses working today. The role of "the wife" can easily be thankless but Morton makes it matter and in scene after scene she acts as the emotional core. I can't remember the last time I saw a scene as raw and resonant as the one in which Debbie confronts Ian about his affair and, frustrated by the fact that he has completely shut down, just loses it on him. Riley and Morton's performances are not only great in their own right, they totally complement each other's.
For those for whom the primary draw for a movie like this is the music, rest assured that it plays as big and as important a role as Curtis' personal relationships. Like his marriage, his music brings becomes a trap through the fame that it brings and in its own way leaves him feeling powerless. I wasn't born yet when Curtis died but as someone who came of age in the '90s, it was hard for me not to think of Kurt Cobain when the film version of Curtis started talking about how he just wanted to make music and not be adored or famous. The music has allowed him to express himself in perhaps the only way that he truly can, but it has also boxed him in and introduced more pressures and responsibilities than he can handle. That pressure, combined with his romantic turmoil and his inability to control his illness, leads to his end.
Filmed in stark (and beautiful) black and white, the film has a look that I think will serve it well in the years to come. There's a sense of timelessness to it, both in terms of the content of the story and the way that the story is presented, that I think will keep it from becoming dated. There's nothing about Control that stands out for me as a weakness; it's pretty much perfect from top to bottom.