Control (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In essence, Control is a standard order biopic of a tormented artist. What makes the film interesting, if not unique, is the style in which director Anton Corbijn has elected to present it. Rather than approaching the picture with the vivid psychedelic hues one might anticipate from a movie taking place in the drug-hazed world of late 1970s rock and roll, Corbijn has turned the clock back literally as well as figuratively and filmed Control in grainy black-and-white. The style makes it easier to represent Manchester as one of the world's most depressing places. The black-and-white not only makes it seem as if Control was made many years ago but gives audiences a dose of grimness of a place where it always seems to be gray and gloomy. (It is said that the climate of Manchester gives rise, at least in part, to the dark nature of the music that has its genesis there.)

Control tells the story of Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), the troubled lead singer and lyricist of the late-'70s band Joy Division. Curtis, along with mates Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), and Stephen Morris (Harry Treadway) formed Joy Division (initially called Warsaw) in late 1977. The band's short life ended in 1980 when Curtis, only 23 years old at the time, hanged himself in the kitchen of his estranged wife, Deborah (Samantha Morton). Control is based on Deborah Curtis' book, Touching from a Distance, which details her life with Curtis. They met and married as teenagers, endured a rocky marriage made more difficult by his ongoing battle with epilepsy and his affair with a Belgian writer, Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara). In the end, Curtis's surge of problems overwhelmed him and he chose the rash escape. However, as is often true of musicians who kill themselves, the work has outlived its maker.

Corbijn's goal with Control is to build a sense of Curtis' growing panic into the fabric of the motion picture. He seeks to drive the story as much by style as by narrative. The black-and-white aids immeasurably, but the frequent use of Joy Division's music as well as long, unbroken takes in which there is little dialogue add to the overall effect. It is discomfiting to watch conversations in which people talk to Curtis but he ignores them, gazing off into space. There is an intensity inherent in Corbijn's approach, but the movie's pacing is deliberate, occasionally bordering on glacial. This is one experience that requires an investment of patience from viewers.

The acting is peerless. Sam Riley embodies Curtis in a way that's eerie. Wearing special contact lenses to enable his eyes to better resemble those of the singer, he has Curtis's demeanor and mannerisms down pat. It's like watching Curtis come to life 30 years after his death. In fact, Riley even provides Curtis's vocals in all of the on-screen Joy Division performances and, while his voice isn't an exact replica, it's similar. Samantha Morton, a chameleon-like actress who changes to fit the role, is almost unrecognizable during her early scenes. She plays the film's most sympathetic character - the woman whose life is most visibly impacted by the collateral damage resulting from her somber, uncommunicative husband's emotional implosion. Alexandra Maria Lara has a small but crucial role as Curtis's lover. The complication of falling in love with Annik is what pushes Curtis to his breaking point.

Appreciation of Control is not tied to the viewer's attitude toward the music of Joy Division or its successor, New Order. The movie is strong enough to stand on its own and it does not overemphasize the sounds of the era to the detriment of the characters. However, it is fair to say that those with a familiarity with Joy Division will find more to absorb in Control. Story-wise, this picture doesn't break new ground; this is a tale that one can find littered throughout the pages of history both recent and long ago, but the way Corbijn has presented it gives it a freshness and fervor that makes it worth sampling.

Control (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1