It’s said that Ian Curtis wrote the line, ‘Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders’, not out of some deep, existential Camus-fuelled angst but as a sly dig at fellow gloom-mongers Echo and the Bunnymen. A little joke if you like. It’s hard to imagine in a way, the arch-miserabilist having a chuckle at his contemporaries, a rare insight perhaps into another side of an icon from before the age when every two-bit minor celebrity’s every shag, shit or coke-fuelled bust-up was chronicled for our daily consumption. These days, the tabs would have him writing a blog from his hospital bed after every epileptic fit. But no, his short existence is frozen in aspic as a series of immaculate set-pieces: the moody black-and-white Anton Corbijn photographs, the elegiac Peter Saville sleeves, the desolate European bleakness of Joy Division’s meagre, curtailed output. It’s odd then that it’s Corbijn who really brings Ian Curtis to life for us in this biopic, even if he is still mooching around in highly stylised monochrome.
Based on the book Touching from a Distance by his widow Deborah, Control tells Curtis’ story from his teenage days in Macclesfield, portraying him as bright, funny and intense, if sometimes withdrawn. His romance with Deborah (an exceptional, tour-de-force performance from Samantha Morton) features heavily in these early years; by the time he’s nineteen, they’re married. After seeing The Sex Pistols play Curtis forms a band, soon signed up to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label as Joy Division. Later, things take a turn for the worse when Curtis suffers an epileptic fit on the way back from a London show, and at the same time Deborah gives birth to a daughter, adding to his responsibilities. Curtis begins an affair with a Belgian girl called Annik after she interviews the band and he’s torn apart in trying to maintain two lives without letting anyone, band, wife, lover or child, down, unwilling or unable to relinquish any part.
Given the subject matter and the art-house photography (apparently Corbijn told the actors how to pose at the end of every scene) you could be forgiven for assuming that the film might be less than a barrel of laughs but it rivals 24-Hour Party People for hilarity, the Tony Wilson (RIP) character being little more than a reprise of Steve Coogan’s portrayal in that film. The real comic turn here though is manager Rob Gretton. As the rest of Joy Division flounder on stage following another of Curtis’ grand mal attacks Gretton bribes the lead singer of Crispy Ambulance to take to the stage in his place. After the predictable bottling off he returns to ask where his money is. ‘It’s in’, says Gretton, ‘my fuck-off pocket’.
If there’s a criticism to be made it’s in the pacing of the final third. We watch Curtis’ descent into depression, unable to overcome his guilt, all the while haunted by the possibility of further fits, and in essence we’re waiting for the inevitable grim ending. Perhaps a more experienced director than Corbijn would have played it differently. It’s a small gripe though when, with the aid of Morton and Sam Riley who plays Curtis, he so successfully brings his main characters to life. We feel Deborah’s pain equally as much as Ian’s, a tribute to Morton’s performance and the way she illustrates the crushing effect on her of Curtis’ behaviour. A visual treat then, but far more than mere iconography.