THE EDGE OF NO ESCAPE : Anton Corbijn’s ‘Control’ [9/10] : for Tribune

UK 2007

Starring : Sam Riley, Samantha Morton
Director : Anton Corbijn
SUPERB Ian Curtis biopic Control is surely, barring some miracle, the British film of the year – indeed,  one of the decade's finest. We first meet Curtis (Riley) as a teenage Macclesfield poet in 1973 – the momentous day he buys Bowie's Ziggy Stardust LP and meets his future wife Debbie (Morton) – and follow him through the rest of the decade, via the formation of doomy post-punk outfit Joy Division, and through the band's rapid success. All the while, however, lead-singer Curtis's personal problems (physical, psychological, romantic) are becoming increasingly insuperable…

Control has two immediately-obvious strong suits: shot in monochrome by cinematographer Martin Ruhe and director Corbijn (a remarkably confident first feature for this long-renowned Dutch photographer), it's consistently remarkable to look at, capturing in persuasive detail both the general atmosphere of northern Britain in the 1970s and also the particular aesthetic of Joy Division themselves. And then there's Riley. Though in the early stretches he resembles Pete Doherty as much as anyone else, as the film unfolds he simply – and eerily - becomes Ian Curtis before our eyes. The on-stage sequences which punctuate the narrative are hair-raising in their accuracy and intensity, but Riley's work (in what is, astonishingly, also his film debut) is much more than just a pitch-perfect impersonation.
He shows the human face behind the iconic Curtis image (an image which Corbijn's photographs helped create) - as a larkish, mop-haired schoolboy finds his voice and his metier, only to be rapidly overwhelmed by forces he can neither comprehend nor control. In the latter stages, indeed, he has the haunted look of a harrowed, whipped greyhound. While Curtis's story is inescapably tragic, Matt Greenhalgh's script (partly based on Debbie Curtis's book Touching From a Distance) ensures that proceedings aren't by any means the doom-and-gloom affair one might expect from the subject-matter alone. The dialogue is consistently marbled with an audacious streak of Mancunian humour – often darkly sardonic, occasionally flat-out hilarious – and it's Greenhalgh and Corbijn's ever-so-careful modulation of tone that proves crucial in making the inevitably shattering climax so very difficult to bear.

Neil Young
written for the current issue of Tribune magazine
based on Edinburgh Film Festival report