As a Joy Division fan, I was looking forward to Control so much. It had received great reviews, it's based on a biography by Ian Curtis' wife, and is directed by Anton Corbijn, who was the official band photographer and an artist I greatly admire.....so why did I find Control so unengaging?
Not that there's anything obviously wrong with the film or anything. You couldn't fault the efforts of the acting personnel in any way at all; both Sam Riley and Samantha Morton as Ian and Deborah Curtis perform sterling work, and most of the supporting actors are more than adequate. Corbijn uses black and white to perfectly catch the period in which Joy Division emerged from - Macclesfield, a small town outside Manchester during the 70s, just prior to the explosion of punk.
Maybe the opening half an hour that concentrates of the teenage Curtis seems a little unnecessary beyond showing Ian meeting Deborah for the first time, and their teenage relationship that quickly became a marriage and family. Watching Corbijn longingly focus his camera on the semi-naked Curtis, listening to Bowie, Reed and Iggy Pop and reading Crash, The Naked Lunch and Howl (yeah, he's cool, we get it) just grates a bit after the first instance.
Curtis never appears to be too interested in keeping a balance between harmonious domesticity and his band (he's mean towards Deborah even before his lover Annik arrives on the scene, and he's nothing like a doting father on this evidence), so perhaps we should applaud Corbijn for not mythologising Curtis too much and presenting him as he really was. The steady rise of Joy Division around 1979-1980 coincided with Curtis developing epilepsy; the pressures of which eventually told as his condition was always going to affect the band (several gigs were abandoned during his horrifyingly recreated seizures) and his marriage. Falling in love with Annik, a glamorous Belgian wasn't able to make Curtis happy as he still felt bound to Deborah and was unable to make a final break with her. Eventually the mounting pressure told. Curtis delivers a soliloquoy admitting his weaknesses, that he's given all he can possibly give and yet people still ask him for more, which asks questions about the future of Joy Division had he lived - would he have still wanted the band to be successful and all the trappings that go with it. As we know, he didn't.
Corbijn films Curtis' decline as sympathetically as he possibly can without making him look too glamorous. We never really get to know too much about his relationship with Annik, which isn't surprising as the film is based on Deborah Curtis' book, and I'm not sure whether the mistress was involved in the production in any way. What was private between them presumably still remains so, so her character isn't fleshed out so much, and we never know whether they were happy, so maybe that's a valid shortcoming of the film - that you don't get the whole story, just what is known.
Control really succeeds in the recreation of Joy Division's music though. The actors playing Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook are all talented musicians in their own right, and with Sam Riley, they play Joy Division's music rather than rely on miming with backing tapes, and it works so much better for doing so. It evokes what it must have been like so much more, and also reminds you that live they sound so much louder and primal than they did on record, which was partly because of the excellent production job that Martin Hannett achieved on their records. It's then that the film comes alive. The fact that it doesn't always do so makes Control something of an uneven film. Maybe it's too reverential who knows; that the people involved want to do Ian justice so much that the film never feels alive.