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November 19, 2007

After seeing Control Richard D. North still wonders why Ian Curtis killed himself: Control - Anton Corbijn

Posted by Richard D. North

Directed by Anton Corbijn
certificate 15, 2007

This is a beyond-decent movie. It is understated, which is a good thing. It is dramatic, up to a point, though most of the audience know how it's going to end. I happened to see it with someone who didn't, and I had to suggest to her afterwards that I would fill her in on the Easter story too, when she felt strong enough.

The film's core weakness is that when Ian Curtis finally tops himself, one is rather inclined to wonder why.

Here was a bright young man fulfilling every bright young man's dream. He was becoming a very big star. He was being thoroughly expressive and creative, and appreciated. He had a nice plump local girl wife, Deborah (Samantha Morton), on whose book Touching From a Distance the film is based. And he had a gorgeous, classy, skinny trophy girlfriend, Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), who's foreign. He was surrounded by very supportive people. One of them, his manager, is hilariously rude and given great lines. (When someone asks him for a loan, this bonny scrapper replies something like:

Have I got fucking Barclays tattooed on my forehead?
I don't say this is Wildean, or even Hislopian, but it's good stuff.)

True, Curtis' wife had rumbled him and she would need divorcing, or seriously demand a divorce, at some point. But that hadn't stopped John Lennon and stacks of other talented people moving on. It can't have helped that Curtis had epilepsy, but as someone pointed out, it was his most chaotic performances which were his most cherished: he was to that extent like a circus act, as are many rock legends.

This isn't a matter of an old critic's hard-heartedness. It's a matter of story-telling failure. This movie is so low-key that it simply can't convey a build-up of tension.

There's something else too. It is never easy to know whether youthful angst, and especially youthful angst when it's channelled into poetry, art or rock music is genuine. Being a bit gothic is the default pose of most young people. A pout and a scowl is the young person's mask of choice.

In any case, the aesthetic many muso's adopted back then was also pretty moody. The New Romantics of pop were so called because they were reaching back to the Old Romantics of Hampstead, Liguria and the Lake District personified by Shelley and Keats and all the rest. The question always lurks: how dark is this dark period, really? And then, the question arises: does the pose shade into reality if the young poseur doesn't have the strength to resist its charms? Does the Imitation of Angst become the real thing, as the imitation of sanctity has been claimed to do?

Ian Curtis' widow says that Curtis was depressed at times, and if that's true, this film is much more of a failure. Depression isn't about being a bit upset (which was how Curtis mostly was portrayed here), or even very upset (which he is portrayed as being, from time to time). It's about a crushing, palpable misery whose proper portrayal would leave no doubt. Maybe it's a matter of acting: maybe this depth of feeling was beyond Sam Riley in his inhabiting Curtis. Maybe he couldn't convey Curtis' feeling in rather the way poor Nicole Kidman couldn't bring us Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

If this was a bad movie, one would say: who cares? But Control succeeds at the most important task of interesting us in the protagonists. I would like to know more about this fellow than I learnt here.

It isn't really fair to blame the director, Anton Corbijn, either: he's a photographer who has made an amazingly strong feature debut and that it isn't any better is hardly surprising.

However, there is a problem with the movie which it was in the director's gift to fix. He has shot the story not only in black and white but also in what one might call NME-Vision. The NME, rock's weekly bible, had a studied grimness about it during its great years of influence, which coincided with our story. Not only were all its instant stars required to be darkly grey, but every scene against which they were shot was required to be derelict, beaten-up, downbeat.

In fact, of course, the Fifties were a blaze of colour after the war, and the Sixties more so. The Seventies were positively psychedelic. As the film assembles its period backdrop, it can't help showing us how things really were. The cars for instance were becoming quite svelte and swift. Rock bands had beaten up Transits, but any Transit was faster and easier to drive than any van of an older generation. The age of flares and Abba was not notably grey. And even in the seven-storey deck access council estates of the perennially glum Oopnorth the sun often shone. Not in this movie.

And here the gloominess of the scene brings us back to the essentially interesting thing about much rock music. Ian Curtis personifies it. He was a Macclesfield northerner, but that didn't mean he was from a poor background. His was a consumerist lower-middle class world. Corbijn doesn't disguise this: the boy Curtis is seen mucking about in the medicine cupboards of nice, smart old people in clean bungalows. He may have been a bit of dreamer at school.

But we are denied some of the real Curtis: he was - we learn from his widow - prone to wearing orange blazers. Indeed, Deborah, who is billed with co-producing the film, probably ought to have exerted herself more: she implies she was quite creative and that Curtis was quite, well, controlling. He was, we suspect, more bloody, more lively, more classically poetic, more selfish, more the natural star than this account allows. He was more glamorous than this film knows how to express. Remember, even the Ramones were art school punks who soon got bored with being marooned in an urban ghetto of someone else's imagination.

Curtis' musical taste and general aural world is quite ordinary. David Bowie and Steel Pulse figure. So Joy Division's slit-your-wrist rock music might have grown out of artistic stylishness more than from a truly suicidal well of suffering.

It happens that in the late 1970s, when I wanted gothic New Romance, I was happy enough with The Only Ones and Doll By Doll and the Pop Group. I liked the pop manifestation of misery: the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen were good fun.

In the cinema this week, I really loved the Joy Division songs on the soundtrack. I wish I had heard the band live back in the day. By the same token, I find the Sex Pistols or The Clash increasingly attractive - especially as their music is used so often as the soundtrack of vivid video. I don't suppose Joy Division will ever be rated as great by a cool head. It's said that the musicians involved were at best a bit unskilled at the time. So be it, they had great tunes and some fine anthem builds of pace and tone. This wasn't exactly home-made music, nor makeshift. It was well orchestrated.

The upshot is that this is a decent music movie. It will stand with Ray [read my review here] and Walk the Line as a very sound introduction to the sound world of its subjects. It is a small pity that a film about an aesthetic of misery could not really convey why poor Ian Curtis was so unhappy.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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