You have to pat yourself on the back sometimes. I’m one of the first to have a go at the British film industry for the lame rom-com dross or OTT period melodramas that are force-fed to UK audiences. Then along comes a stark and exhilarating film like Control that reinforces one’s belief in the importance and value of cinema.

The film focuses on the formative years of Ian Curtis, lead singer and creative force behind the seminal band Joy Division. Curtis (Riley) is an introverted young man, who falls for his friends girl at a very young age. He marries Deborah (Morton) and quickly settles down but yearns for more… and eventually winds up being the lead singer with Joy Division. Following encouragement and arguments with local bigwig Tony Wilson, the charts and success beckon but Curtis is a fragile individual wary of the impending celebrity and the demands it will bring. While on tour he fall for a groupie but is still unable to control events around him, at first due to a sudden and violent epileptic fit and subsequently due to his own demons.

This is much more than a matter of fact biopic. The film gives us a number of great characters that are wonderfully realized and fresh even if they are already familiar to us (Tony Wilson... again). We’ve seen Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner over recent years, but here they are as lithe young musicians at the cutting edge of music. These side characters are important and drive the film along, most notably in the introduction of brash group manager Rob Gretton who is in equal parts maniacal genius and caring friend. These elements are necessary as the films real core is away from the stage and firmly on Ian Curtis’s crumbling state of mind.

Riley delivers a truly stunning performance. He embodies Curtis perfectly with a sense of fragility and intensity that we see in him both on stage and at home. The relationship between him and Morton is heartbreaking yet utterly realistic and devoid of over-sentimentality. The whole film, shot as it is in black and white, has a sense of simplicity that has been missed in the stylized ‘look at me’ efforts of other British directors. Anton Corbijn might be Dutch, but this is a British film about a British icon, and as good as a biopic can get.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey ****
Last week, I may have complained that the British film industry deserved to be taken out and shot for inflicting crap like Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution on an unsuspecting public. This week it’s a bit of an ‘open mouth, change feet’ scenario with the release of And When Did You Last See Your Father? and, particularly, Control, photographer Anton Corbijn’s phenomenal Ian Curtis biopic. Shot in beautiful black and white, Corbijn’s film feels like a throwback to the 1960’s gritty English films — you half expect to see Richard Harris in the background — and a distinct moment in history. The shades of grey also make an interesting, if laboured, analogy for the life of Curtis, the musical genius who fronted Joy Division but spiralled into guilt, depression and, ultimately, suicide.

Based on Touching From A Distance, Deborah Curtis’s biographical account of life with her husband, it’s a deeply personal and brutally honest portrayal of a life going into unstoppable freefall. Curtis was just 23 when he hanged himself, Deborah around the same age when she found his body. In the few years they were together, Curtis took Joy Division to the brink of the big time and a US tour, fathered a child and embarked on an ongoing affair with Belgian fan Annik. Corbijn — and Deborah — sift through every almost unwatchable moment, a feeling intensified by the stunning performances of newcomer Riley as Curtis and especially Morton as Deborah. Not for Morton the clichés and expected histrionics. As you’d expect from this most committed of actresses, it’s a performance of nigh heartstopping reality. Without Morton, control would be standard kitchen sink stuff, regardless of Riley’s uncanny portrayal. With Morton, though, this is probably one of the best films of the year.
Official Site
Control at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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