Torn apart

Control charts the angst of Ian Curtis
Sam Riley as Ian Curtis

Let's start with the Ian Curtis dance. Part march in place, part ecstatic flail, it conveyed the singer's trancelike connection to Joy Division's music; it also eerily echoed the epileptic seizures he began suffering at age 21, just as his band was becoming famous. If you don't have the Curtis dance down — let alone his gaunt frame or haunted eyes — you don't have Curtis.

Fortunately, Control director Anton Corbijn — making his feature debut after a long career photographing musicians including Joy Division — found Sam Riley, an unknown who more or less resembles Curtis physically. But beyond that, the performance is uncanny — the dance is there, along with the anguish and the hunger of a first-time lead actor anxious to do right by the star he's portraying, not to mention his own career. Apologies to Joaquin Phoenix, but imitation isn't always the best route. If you want to make your troubled-artist biopic feel authentic, the spirit of desperate urgency is well in order.

Of course, Johnny Cash lived a long life; post-punk poster child Curtis only lived to be 23, though he packed a lot of drama into his adult years. Control swoops in circa 1973; we first meet Curtis as a David Bowie–obsessed, William Wordsworth–quoting, dreaming-of-a-way-out-of-Manchester high school student. Soon after, he marries Deborah Woodruff (Samantha Morton), and the film hustles ahead to Joy Division's formation, with early gigs, recordings, and a performance on Tony Wilson's Granada Reports TV show (sparked when Curtis passes a note to Wilson urging him to book the group in so many words: "Joy Division you cunt"). Though Control is based on Deborah Curtis's biography of her husband, Touching from a Distance (Faber and Faber, 1996), the film devotes ample attention to dynamics within the band, with Factory Records mogul Wilson (Craig Parkinson), and with manager Rob Gretton (Tony Kebbell). Concerts are re-created with keen realism, enhanced by Corbijn's decision to shoot in no-frills black and white, a choice that also complements the dreary, working-class surroundings that inspired the band's music. (For more on Joy Division and late 1970s Manchester, check out Grant Gee's richly detailed doc, Joy Division, which screened alongside Control at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and should be hitting theaters in 2008. Or there's always Michael Winterbottom's 2002 goofy-insane look at the Manchester scene, 24 Hour Party People.)

The heart of Control, though, is Curtis's tangled home life. After impulsively marrying at 19, he tries to fit the role of dutiful family man, even keeping his desk job (while wearing his coat with "HATE" written on the back) as Joy Division takes off. Deborah gives birth to Natalie, and despite his intentions of doing the right thing, Curtis can't help but fall for Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), a bewitching journalist who's portrayed as sympathetically here as any Other Woman could hope to be.

So yeah, you have your wife (whom you feel incredibly devoted to, despite everything), your mistress (whom you love more than anything), your burgeoning fame (which you're not sure you want), and a mysterious disease that requires you to take so many pills your sense of self is completely compromised. What do you do? Everyone knows what happened to Curtis, and while Control — beautifully filmed and performed — can't quite crack his entire enigma, it's almost enough that it hints at answers. Control's final shot, a haunting image as gorgeous as it is morbid, is a lingering wonder. *


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