Sunday, March 2, 2008

"Atmosphere" and "Isolation"

Music video director and photographer Anton Corbijn’s feature film directorial debut, Control, is a pleasure to me both as a film critic and an avid Joy Division fan. Based on the autobiography, “Touching From a Distance” (1995), by troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ wife, Deborah, Control is a measured, disciplined biopic of Ian’s stunning rise and subsequent downward spiral, which eventually led to his suicide in 1980, at the tragic age of 23, ending Joy Division’s meteoric leap to fame after only two albums and a handful of singles. Resisting the temptation to glorify or romanticize Curtis as an artistic figure, Corbijn’s film maintains a sober tone in depicting Curtis’ physical and emotional struggles, including his debilitating epilepsy, his dissolving marriage and failing fatherhood, his anxiety about the band’s popularity, and his increasingly self-conscious and paranoid attitude – all of which contributed to his shocking demise at the height of his musical career.

Control's strength germinates from the incredible performance of its lead actor, Sam Riley, who plays Ian Curtis with a perfect blend of rambunctious energy and dour subtlety. The spitting image of the late singer, Riley carries the film with his soulful and spot-on representations of Curtis’ facial expressions, gestures, and, dance moves, injecting his performance with a vigor that enables him to transcend the confines of mere imitation that usually cripples biopics, including Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). Riley is saved quite a bit of potential embarrassment by first-time feature writer Matt Greenhalgh’s tasteful and sparse script. Control never indulges in the “look at so-and-so’s genius” scenes or the
cheesy “that’s how they wrote the song” recreations. Greenhalgh’s screenplay is wisely elliptical skipping over many cliché elements and leaving only the necessary and truly essential aspects of songwriting and performing on screen – those that further character development and contribute to propelling the narrative forward.

Not only does the film’s perfectly selective script eliminate trite sequences, it also reflects the psychological and mental perspective of the strained and encumbered Curtis. The film lacks the romantic glamour of standard rock ‘n’ roll films because, to Curtis, the trappings of fame and excess were overlooked due to the tremendous about of pressure he felt weighing down upon himself constantly. His heart and soul were constantly elsewhere, detached, leading Curtis to comment in the film that he often felt as if someone else were inhabiting his skin and merely acting as if they were him. The film’s choice to, like Curtis, attach itself to the grungier, more negative facets of life links it to the “kitchen-sink realism” of classic British films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963), establishing an apt connection between the film’s Manchester setting and harsh thematic content, and the film’s inherited British formal design.

Although Riley’s performance is certainly the core of the film, nearly all of Control’s characters are adequately fleshed-out and rounded, including Ian’s band mates, Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway), Ian’s Belgian mistress, Annik (Alexandra Marie Lara), and Joy Division’s manager, Rob Gretton (Tony Kebbell), who provides refreshing comedic relief. The cast churns out solid performances across the board, except for the one-note, tearfest that is Deborah Curtis (Samantha Morton). Although the film tries to paint Deborah as a complex, tragic heroine, probably as a result of Deborah’s writing of the source material, her character is ultimately a boring, simple, and monotonous tragic heroine, probably also a result of Deborah’s writing of the source material. Deborah’s character has a singular motivation (loving Ian) and a constant sense of moral certitude (must love Ian), which makes her out to be quite mono-faceted and disjointed from the other characters in the film. Whether this comes from Deborah’s inability to view herself from an outside perspective when writing “Touching From a Distance,” or whether she is really just as amazingly anti-dynamic as a person is unclear, but either way, Control suffers from her constant, overly predictable input.

Visually, Control exemplifies the perfect union of content and form. Originally shot on color, but transferred to black-and-white, Control unifies its visual style with the iconic artwork of Joy Division’s two studio albums, “Unknown Pleasures” (1979) and “Closer” (1980), both of which feature cryptic black-and-white imagery. In addition to its link to the band’s classic album art, the black-and-white cinematography illustrates the bleak, desolate world of Curtis’ haunting lyrics, full of shadows, death, coldness, and solitude. Corbijn’s history as a photographer informs the film’s impressive framing and mature use of camera movement and color contrast, resulting in an unobtrusive yet effectively moody visual scheme and mise-en-scène. Corbijn’s camera, helmed expertly by Martin Ruhe, organically captures the melancholy Curtis’ worldview, being careful to pick up the image of a black bird flapping off screen as Curtis walks out of frame during one shot, and utilizing the ethereal dynamics of smoke from a church chimney in the film’s impacting final shot.

While Control, like nearly any narrative of Ian Curtis’ life, centers around the darkened mind of a tormented artist, the film also makes a point to reveal Curtis at moments of immense joy: losing himself to the sonic profundity of David Bowie albums as teenager, witnessing the Sex Pistols blistering live show for the first time, gyrating with gusto during Joy Division’s first televised performance. These scenes, primarily found in the first portion of the film, cast a fresh light on Curtis’ reputation as a brooding genius. Amidst all of the pain and tragedy of Curtis’ life, it is perhaps best to remember him as a young man who loved music and was endlessly passionate about his art, contemplating how he could make music like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop while lying down in a small bed, designed for one.

by Brandon Colvin


Anonymous said...

Sam Riley was denied some serious Oscar love. For reals.

Excellent review of a great film.

Brandon Colvin said...

No kidding. I would've given him the ol' statuette instead of DD-L.

Steve Langton said...

This review is a joy to read. You have captured it beautifully. For me, CONTROL brings back some real memories. It was uncanny watching Riley and co playing these hallowed songs and remembering JD live in concert and the first time I heard them via the late John Peel's excellent radio show.
Thanks for the review which has added to my appreciation of this film.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks for stopping by, Steve.

I'm glad the review added to your appreciation of the film. I guess that's just about the best thing a critic could ask for.