The Short Life of Joy Division's Ian Curtis
Joy Division's Ian Curtis, the brooding, epileptic singer of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "She's Lost Control," hanged himself at the age of 23 on the eve of his band's first American tour, leaving behind a wife and child, a broken band (that would go on to become New Order), and a much obsessed-over musical legacy. He is one of punk rock's most hallowed martyrs. So Control, the new Curtis biopic, has a lot of mythology to reckon with.
Curtis (an eerie Sam Riley) grows up in the dreary, depressed town of Macclesfield, England, listening to David Bowie, reading J. G. Ballard, popping pills, reciting poetry, and dancing to records in his bedroom. He marries Deborah Woodruff (Samantha Morton) young and gets a job at the unemployment office. He sees the Sex Pistols' first Manchester gig (a show that was famously attended by only 40-odd people but which formed the nucleus of the entire Manchester punk scene) and immediately starts a band with some mates. He has a child with his wife. He falls in love with a beautiful Belgian journalist and fan, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara).
As Joy Division takes off and his affair with Honoré deepens, Curtis is pulled between his conflicting loves. Home is suffocating. He's alienated from his wife, worn down by the banality of bills and baby formula (when his baby is first born, Curtis looks nothing less than crushed, and excuses himself from the hospital room for a solitary smoke), and miserably chained to a medicine cabinet full of crude anti-epilepsy prescriptions. His sweet but plain wife and young daughter become symbols of a life he longs to leave. He describes his hometown to Honoré: "It's gray, it's miserable, I've wanted to escape it my whole life." His wife, he says, "loves Macclesfield."
Honoré, by contrast, is dark, foreign, independent, and totally irresistible. Joy Division is a visceral freedom, both from the drab bricks of his hometown and, in his ecstatic movements onstage, from the constant threat of his epilepsy. Taken together, they make an appealing alternate world for Curtis. But Curtis feels increasingly guilty for his failed marriage. His epilepsy worsens, the band takes a toll on him, and real escape starts to seem impossible.
The film is adapted from Touching from a Distance, the biography written by Curtis's widow, and directed by Anton Corbijn, the photographer and music-video director responsible for some of the most iconic images of Joy Division. Deborah Curtis's insight into her husband's home life provides a real depth that even documentary testimonials from his bandmates have missed, and Corbijn's film just looks perfect, as if one of his bleak, black-and-white Joy Division stills had come to life.
Throughout, the performances elevate the film above rote history. Sam Riley is a striking Ian Curtis, full of sublimated anguish and conflicted emotions, impassive coldness, shattering fits, and quiet moments of happiness. Samantha Morton and Alexandra Maria Lara are perfect as Curtis's polar-opposite loves—Morton is pretty and kind but utterly domestic; Maria Lara brings some complexity and even melancholy to a role that could've easily been played as just a tempting doe-eyed groupie. The supporting cast—especially Craig Parkinson (looking not a little like 24 Hour Party People's Steve Coogan) as a smooth-talking Tony Wilson and Toby Kebbell as brash manager Rob Gretton—is, if anything, underused.
The script is for the most part subtle and natural, but there are some unfortunate voice-overs, and the movie is bookended by Riley reciting Joy Division lyrics when the songs themselves would've been more affecting and less heavy-handed. When the film does incorporate Joy Division's music, it makes for some of its most powerful moments—these songs are still as haunting and rare as they were more than 25 years ago.
Control doesn't apologize for Curtis's failures—though, for a film based on his widow's understandably devastated account of their marriage and his suicide, it's surprisingly evenhanded—nor does it further exaggerate his dark, romantic legend. Rather, it shines everyday light on Curtis as he flickers between a depressed, ordinary life and fleeting joy. In the end, as Curtis escapes in the most brutal way possible, Corbijn pans up over the low-slung hills and houses of Macclesfield to the tune of "Atmosphere," following a black plume of chimney smoke into the air, and it's as close to Curtis as any film is likely to come.