Monday, September 24, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Control"

(United Kingdom, 121 minutes, 2007)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by: Deborah Curtis and Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book “Touching From A Distance” by Deborah Curtis
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Kebbell, Craig Parkinson, James Anthony Pearson

I came to love Joy Division a few years after their heyday, which was in the late 70s and when I was a 13-year-old just waking up to the existence of the era’s really amazing bands. I remember listening to CFNY, Toronto’s alternative radio station, in the wee hours, getting shivers as Ian Curtis’ haunting, hollow vocals moaned out “Love…love will tear us apart…again” (watch it here). I even had a very creepy dream about him that somehow mashed up the video to that song with Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Joy Division has lurked in the corners of my musical interest ever since.

Curtis has always been an enigma. The band only put out two albums: their debut, “Unknown Pleasures,” and “Closer,” before Curtis hanged himself at the ridiculously young age of 23. Compilations such as “Still” and “Substance” carried on the band’s name as the surviving members went on to form New Order. But in an age before music videos, before video cameras were in cel phones, before the proliferation of music networks and avenues by which bands could be interviewed ad nauseum, Ian Curtis was a bright flare that you caught in the corner of your eye before it disappeared. And only his wife, Deborah, was ever able to bring him to us as a whole human being with her biography, “Touching From A Distance”.

That biography forms the basis of Control, a moody and stirring biopic ably directed by onetime rock photographer Anton Corbijn (the band was once subjects). Actor and singer Sam Riley – who oddly enough, appears in the other movie that fictionalizes Joy Division, 24 Hour Party People, but not as Curtis -- manages to bring a dose of humanity to his role. Seeing Curtis in his day job as a fairly satisfied civil servant helping disabled people find jobs was a bit of an eye-opener given the band's often dark and ugly side. Much has been made about Riley’s eerie similarity to Curtis; he does indeed resemble the man but also brilliantly captures his unique stage presence and, as the story progresses, his ultimate despair over his life and his disabling epilepsy. Throughout the film it’s hard not to think that the combination of an already volatile personality and the heavy mixture of medications he was taking to treat the affliction was the deadly combination that led to his tragic death.

As usual, Samantha Morton is brilliant as his wife, Deborah, a woman who was clearly passionately in love with a man who she could only helplessly watch as he slipped into an abyss. In the film Deborah almost serves as Ian’s conscience, a voice trying to talk him down from the ledge, and Morton’s expressive and naturalistic acting style is note-perfect. Is she ever going to be recognized as one of the great actresses of our time?

Musical biopics seem to be a dime a dozen, but Control is one of the few that not only illuminates its subject but captures in its tone the very nature of the man. A must for fans of the band.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis