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.
Reader Feedback - 5 Comments
There was joy in Joy Division?
CajoleJuice on Nov 17, 2007
Firstshowing.net Can't wait to see REVOLVER???!!! and will give Control 5.5 out of 10. Have you lost your collective narrow minds? Here's one review I respect and links to others.. Control (15) In the late ’70s, working-class benefits officer Ian Curtis (Riley) joins Manchester rock band Joy Division. After marrying Deborah (Morton), Curtis is diagnosed with epilepsy and finds the pressure of touring, and later success, increasingly hard to handle. Review The kitchen-sink drama is a genre that the British film industry hasn’t returned to in quite a while. One could argue that Ken Loach’s wonderful Sweet Sixteen, despite its modern-day trimmings (heroin, knife crime), was its last screen incarnation, but despite its roots in biography and the not-so-’60s past, Anton Corbijn’s Control is a natural successor to the likes of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, A Taste Of Honey and, in particular, Billy Liar. And it’s not simply a question of film stock and setting; yes, Control is shot in crisp monochrome and takes place in a defiantly working-class Northern setting, but like the best kitchen-sink dramas it’s a story about people trapped, and defined by their inability to break free. Just as those films made stars of their young leads - Albert Finney, Rita Tushingham and Tom Courtenay respectively - so Control acts as an impressive calling card for its star, newcomer Sam Riley. Riley has the unenviable task of carrying a story that will be familiar even to those with just a passing knowledge of Joy Division’s history: on the eve of the band’s first trip to America, Curtis hanged himself in the pantry of the terraced house he shared with his wife Deborah (played here, well and unfussily, by Morton). But if you’re expecting this to be a bathetic The Doors, delving into the psyche of a troubled musician, you’ll be surprised. It doesn’t even matter much if you don’t know your Joy Division from your Kylie Minogue - Corbijn’s film is really just an account of Curtis’ short but influential life, reclaiming him from the myth-makers who see him as a trench-coated visionary and reminding us that here, at 23, was a kid who married too young, was likely failed by the NHS and struggled with the guilt of infidelity. And more than simply restoring Curtis’ humanity, Corbijn leavens his tale with a rich and unlikely seam of dry humour that counters the darkness of his moods. Evidence of Corbijn’s background as a photographer rather than a filmmaker is obvious, with Curtis framed against cobbled streets, high-rise flats and rows and rows of two-up-two-downs. Though some may find the opening scenes of the young Curtis finding his muse a bit of drag, Control has a building energy that finds its fullest expression when Joy Division finally perform. Playing live rather than miming, the cast bring the band’s jarring guitar sound vividly to life, but, again, Riley is the standout, capturing Curtis’ whirling-dervish drummer-boy dance moves with an eerie intensity. If there’s a complaint to be made, it could be that Corbijn is so involved with his leading man - his subject, if you will - that nobody else really gets a look in. Similarly, Corbijn never really engages with whatever it was that prompted Joy Division to fashion such an economic, incisive sound so soon after the angry, messy rumblings of punk. But these are minor problems with a film that does everything it otherwise sets out to do, sidestepping the traditional pitfalls of the usual rock biopic. Indeed, the very best rock movies are hardly about rock music at all, and in this respect Control is up there with Performance and Last Days. Verdict A film about creative and emotional burn-out that says more about the fragility of the soul than any montage of ticket sales and ‘sold out’ signs could ever muster. Reviewer: Damon Wise - Empire Magazine The Times http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/film/film_reviews/article2582388.ece The Independant http://arts.independent.co.uk/film/reviews/article3027695.ece LETS GET A BROADER VIEW SHALL WE. By the way have you ever been to Manchester?
jc on Nov 19, 2007
wow 🙂 its very point of view. Nice post. realy good post thx 🙂
loanzo on Sep 2, 2008
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