Jaq Loses Control: Taking the Joy Out of Joy Division
by Jaq Greenspon
November 17, 2007
Once upon a time, in a horribly depressing place called Manchester, England, there was a boy named Ian Curtis. He had a few problems but decided to channel them into his music by singing in a band he dubbed Joy Division. That wasn't enough to keep away his demons, though, and in the end, he hung himself. The end.
Yeah, that's the plot of Control, the new biopic of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis. And yes, it's as depressing as it sounds. As a first time feature by music video director Anton Corbijn, the film sacrifices in-depth character study in exchange for faux performance footage and a focus on the music instead of the man.
That said, the performance of relative newcomer Sam Riley as Curtis is a breakthrough. It's never easy playing a real person, especially one of whom very little is known, but Riley, ironically, is able to make the role his own. Since the film is based on a book by Curtis' widow, Deborah (who also co-produced) it's reasonable to assume Riley had access to the people who knew the man best, and it feels like he internalized a lot of who Curtis was in order to bring him to life on screen.
As Deborah, Academy-Award nominee Samantha Morton nails the long-suffering shy young girl who finds herself as both an object of desire and of derision by her husband as he deals with manic-depression, alcoholism and epilepsy. This is not a marriage made of peaches and cream. Rounding out the relationship side of the film is Alexandra Maria Lara as Annik Honore, the Belgian with whom Curtis falls in love and has a lengthy, on the road, affair.
What we never get from these three, because it isn't there in the script by first time feature writer Matt Greenhalgh, is any sense of what drives them to do what they do. With the inclusion of Deborah Curtis in the production process, it seems like the filmmakers are never able to delve deeper than she wants go. There's no extrapolation into the why, choosing instead to remain devoted to the what and when and where.
Stylistically, Corbijn is shooting for low budget independent street cred, opting to tell the story with stark black and white imagery and static camera work. He captures the depression of mid-70s England visually, but again, never uses this to his advantage to let us, as viewers, into his characters. And this is too bad. The only thing I can think is that the filmmakers decided that since the music scene Joy Division was coming out of, the creatively potent Factory Records, was already covered so well in the film 24 Hour Party People that they didn't need to bring in anything outside of Curtis' immediate circle. I think this was a mistake. As an audience, we miss the insight which might have been garnered by looking a little deeper into who Curtis was and what his life was about.
The only place Corbijn really succeeds, then, is in the music. Over the course of two hours, we are treated to half a dozen Joy Division songs, performed by the actors and shot beautifully. These are enough to make the film worth seeing, but be warned, they are not the happiest of tunes. For someone who died at the age of 23, the legacy Ian Curtis left behind is immense. It's a shame this film isn't up to the legend and never understands the man.