Sam Riley playing Ian Curtis
A tragic life and a great performance
Control is a film about the lead singer in one of the greatest bands that Britain has ever produced, Joy Division.They stand as one of the better bands between the Beatles and later bands like Nirvana. They also were crucial to the development of the music scene in Manchester, a scene which later produced bands like the Stone Roses and of course Oasis. Their reputation is founded on their two albums, Closer and Unknown Pleasures, on numerous live nights in the clubs of the North West and on singles released in the early eighties. And much of their reputation comes down to the haunting voice and disturbing lyrics of their singer song-writer, Ian Curtis. Their career as a band was so short, because Curtis committed suicide aged only 23 in 1980. The band reformed as New Order without him and went in different directions, but one wonders what would have happened had Curtis had more years to explore musically.
Control documents Curtis's life, from being a teenager in Macclesfield during the early seventies to the first successes with Joy Division, through his young marriage to Debbie Curtis and his affair with the Belgian embassy worker (and part time journalist) Annik Honore, and right up till his eventual suicide. Throughout the movie runs the music, it opens with love will tear us apart one of Joy Division's great songs. This is a film where every sentence is uttered to the backdrop of a guitar chord, where you see and smell the inside of the northern clubs in which Joy Division came to prominence- particularly of course the Factory, managed by Tony Wilson.
If Curtis's life is the subject, then the north west of England in the seventies is the backdrop against which we see that subject. It is the fourth most important character in the story: the other members of Joy Division, their manager Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson and the rest are all shown as the Mancunian context in which Curtis lived. He lived in a society filled with a kind of grim humour- sarcasm and insult abounds. The audience of film critics at the screening I went to found the first half of the film filled with jokes. There are some wonderful moments of humour. Corbijn has captured the peculiar inarticulateness of English life- where gesture becomes infused with all kinds of meaning. Like Atonement, the recent Joe Wright film of Ian McEwan's novel, this is a film about English privacy and the humour and distress which results from it.
For Curtis's life is still veiled in mystery. So quiet did he keep his concerns- he suffered from epilepsy without any of his bandmates knowing until he had a fit right in front of them. He seems in the film to be almost incapable of saying what he means. At times he stands still and silent, exasperating by never explaining what he means. Sam Riley plays Curtis incredibly well. He captures the reticence and the charisma which existed together. Curtis expressed himself through his music- and in notebooks crowded with jottings about songs and poems to be sung, even in one case a notebook with novel scrawled on the title page. Curtis died though not because of privacy. The society that he lived in was one where privacy was valued more than anything else and not all committed suicide. Quite why he died, remains in real life a mystery to most. In the film though an explanation of sorts is given. Curtis was trapped in a marriage conducted far too early in his life. Samantha Morton plays the part of Debbie Curtis brilliantly. The strongest character in the film, Debbie seems at the beginning to be the very definition of a wet blanket. She agrees to everything that Curtis says- whether its getting married or having a kid. But there is something truly resilient about Debbie, at the end of the film you know that she, unlike him, is a survivor, she can endure. Debbie grows far more than Ian in the film, far more than him she appreciates the ordinary things of life and far more than him is connected to them.
Curtis was, by the film's account, an appalling husband. He was unable to repay Debbie. Locked in his own world of creativity, he refused at times to even answer her when she knocked on the door of his room, refused even to climb the stairs to go to bed with her. He is so self focused, that at one point he even asks her whether she wants to sleep with other men. There are enough indications in the film to demonstrate that Curtis by the end found that he was dependent on Debbie but not attracted to her. Rather everything romantic in his nature went out to his Belgian girlfriend Annik. Annik is in this film played as a beautiful and intelligent fantasy for Curtis. Their relationship was never entirely real- but there is no question that Annik attracted him. She is presented at first as a vision off the centre of the camera and in many ways that is what she remains.
Alongside this there is Curtis's worsening epilepsy. Curtis the film implies suffered from degenerating epilepsy. He was frightened of holding his own baby in case he might have a fit and collapse. The drugs he took to help him destabilised his mind and contributed to his inability to cope, to his suicide. We see how towards the end Curtis was unable to appear on stage. He suffered fits whilst playing his music. The music became quite disturbing- listen to a song like 'She's losing control' about a girl who had an epileptic fit in front of him at the employment agency in which he worked and you can hear it. Curtis was also losing control of his own life: right up until very late he worked at the employment exchange in Manchester but was increasingly unable to work there, finding it difficult to stay awake on the job because of the cocktail of drugs that he was taking and the insomnia they induced.
Corbijn manages to capture that for you on screen. The black and white cinematography starts off being a picture of the grim streets of the north west, bereft at the time that Curtis grew up of excitement for him. But by the end the black and white screen mirrors in its unreality the pain of Curtis's existence. The way that his life itself was spinning out of reality. The way that he thought that there was no escape from his illness, from his marriage and his affair (where he wanted two women, one for dependence, one for love) and was tempted by the romantic possibility of killing himself. The film ends in a cacophony of song and story, as Curtis commits suicide offstage.
The camera pans away from Curtis at the end, we don't see the suicide, rather we see its consequences. The film ends on a wrenching scream, the screams of those left behind to work out the meaning of this tragic death.